Telling people things that they do not want to hear: free speech debates and contemporary culture wars

Posted by Rebecca Mortimer - Tuesday, 1 Dec 2020


By Charlotte Lydia Riley

Introduction from The free speech wars.

I wrote this introduction in the spring and early summer of 2020. Since then, the issue of freedom of speech has stayed in the news, in stories ranging from the very serious to the somewhat exasperating. In October 2020, the teacher Samuel Paty was murdered in France after teaching a class on freedom of expression in which he showed his students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammed. A month before, the actor Lawrence Fox had announced his intention to launch a new political party in Britain dedicated to ‘free speech’; in November, he called for the BBC to be defunded because he objected to the censorship of a homophobic slur in the song Fairytale of New York. These two things are not the same. But they are conflated, often, in a debate about ‘freedom of speech’ that flattens all contours and eradicates all nuance; a discussion that screams about being silenced but does not explore how and why pressures on free speech are exerted or what the consequences really are. This introduction, and the contributors to this book, try to provide a more textured picture.

In early 2020 a new organisation, the Free Speech Union (FSU), was launched with much fanfare across the British right-wing press. Toby Young, the organisation’s founder and director, has been associated with the cause for some time, having fallen back on the ‘free speech’ defence to justify, for example, making salacious remarks about female politicians’ breasts.

The words come from a short essay that Orwell wrote towards the end of the Second World War, entitled ‘The Freedom of the Press’.[iv] This was intended to act as a preface to his novel Animal Farm; in the end it was not included in the book, and remained undiscovered until 1971. In the piece, Orwell explained some of the difficulties in getting Animal Farm published, and made the central message of the book – a critique of Stalinism specifically, rather than socialism generally – more explicit. But the essay was also a bigger exploration of the idea that there exists a right to freedom of speech and thought. In the context of wartime, Orwell grappled with the realities of censorship, both as official government policy, and – worse, he believed – as the result of groupthink among publishers and editors. In fact, he derided the ‘intellectual cowardice’ of these people as the worst enemy of any writer or journalist.

Orwell argued that the war had shown that ‘unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban’.[v] Instead, the liberal intellectual elite who controlled publishing and journalism themselves agreed to avoid publishing on certain topics. In an environment where saying some things was simply ‘not done’ (as, Orwell argued, it was once ‘not done’ for a man to mention trousers in the presence of a lady), there did not need to be any particular censorship by states themselves. And the censorship in question was not about protecting state secrets or preventing criticism of the government. Rather, it was self-imposed and was predominantly intended to prevent criticism of Stalin’s USSR, and to parrot Stalinist ideas.

Orwell argued that people self-censored, not only in their writing but also in their thoughts, out of a ‘cowardly desire to keep in with the bulk of the intelligentsia’; people were too afraid and uncertain to really acknowledge what was right or wrong themselves. He thought, too, that this extended beyond refusing to publish material that opposed this world view. For example, he saw this tendency in the liberal outrage that greeted Oswald Mosley’s release from internment in 1942, an act that Orwell believed to be entirely legitimate given the diminished threat from Nazi invasion. As he argued, despite Mosley’s obviously repugnant far-right views, imprisoning anyone without trial was a dangerous precedent: ‘make a habit of imprisoning Fascists without trial, and perhaps the process won’t stop at Fascists’.[vi]

Orwell has become a figurehead for a particular strand of liberalism. The Free Speech Union is far from being the only group to mobilise him in support of telling people what they do not want to hear. These words have been quoted and commodified (on fridge magnets, notebooks and tea towels) beyond all meaning, as a catch-all defence of the right to say anything and everything. But Orwell’s arguments about freedom of speech cannot be accepted without question.

The essay repeats the tendencies towards English exceptionalism seen in his earlier wartime writing. In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, published in 1940, Orwell paints a picture of a gentle, liberty-loving nation of people who cannot be forced into goose-stepping or gestapos.[vii] In ‘The Freedom of the Press’, Orwell continues this theme, arguing that ‘tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England’; but this is not, strictly, accurate. Nor does his claim that British ‘civilisation over a period of four hundred years’ has been ‘founded on’ the ‘freedom of thought and speech’ really hold up to scrutiny.[viii] There was no free speech in the British Empire for most of its subjects; even in the Westminster Parliament, speakers might be free from accusations of libel, but it is forbidden to label your opponent a liar.

Orwell simply refuses to engage with the critiques of freedom of speech, writing that ‘I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech – the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me.’ But we need to take these critiques seriously. Why might people – even supposedly intelligent, liberal, well-meaning people – demand limits on speech? Why might people feel that freedom of thought or speech might fundamentally be impossible – what do people mean when they claim that these things simply ‘cannot exist’?

We need to think about who gets to make claims for freedom of speech, and whose rights to free speech are defended by institutions. And we should question what sort of speech is tolerated within the bounds of free speech and what is seen as off limits. This book seeks to explore these ideas.


When Orwell was writing, the UN Declaration of Human Rights had not yet been conceived. Adopted in Paris in 1948, the declaration is the founding document of the international human rights legal regime. In the context of the ‘barbarous acts’ of the Second World War, it sets out the rights that should be granted to all people and upheld by all nations.[ix] In the preamble, the declaration states that the ‘advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people’. Freedom of speech was written into the very heart of the post-war settlement. It is further guaranteed in Article 19: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’[x] There exists, therefore, an international and universal right to ‘free speech’, the defence of which is critical to democracy and free political expression around the world.

There remain many people and communities around the world who do not currently enjoy the freedom of speech: journalists who cannot publish their reports because their newspapers are controlled or censored by the government; writers who cannot express their criticism of regimes without being thrown into prison; poets and playwrights who risk ending their careers, or even their lives, if they speak the wrong words that express the wrong ideas. There are communities who cannot practise their religion freely for fear of persecution, and there are political parties that are banned or violently opposed. Across the world, there are people whose speech rights are limited or denied and governments whose power comes from denying their people’s right to criticise or condemn them.

When Orwell was writing, of course, this was also the case. The Nazis banned and burned books, locked up and murdered their opponents; but European imperialists, too, closely controlled the press and the publication of critical literature across the colonies, and imprisoned nationalist leaders. And in Britain, too, there was censorship: not just the wartime measures imposed by the Ministry of Information, and described in Orwell’s essay as mostly sensitive and light-touch, but also blasphemy laws, obscenity laws and theatre censorship that meant that every play performed had to be approved by the Lord Chancellor. Most of this domestic censorship was removed by the raft of permissive legislation passed by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in the 1960s, except for blasphemy, which remained an offence until 2008, and remains a common law offence in Northern Ireland today.

Freedom of speech, then, was no simple thing to guarantee in 1948, even in democracies that expressed a general desire to uphold it for their citizens. And in the twenty-first century, its meaning is contested and complex. The ability of people to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ has been dramatically increased with the invention of the internet; people can seek information from across the world and broadcast their ideas, too, globally. Governments still try to shut this down with censorship and firewalls: citizen journalists use anonymous accounts and VPNs to get their message out regardless. People can say what they want, and read what they want, and nobody can stop them. Or can they?


We are, at this moment, in the middle of a culture war: in Britain, certainly in America, across Europe, throughout the world. It is easy to blame this on the rise of ‘populism’, or on the fracturing of political consensus in democracies, or on the rise of dictatorships. In some ways, the world in 2020 does not look so different from the interwar world when Orwell was thinking and writing – the far right in ascendance, and a global pandemic bringing economies to their knees. But in some ways – empires have fallen, the internet has risen – it is dramatically different.

The culture war right now is framed mostly around identity (as they always are): a backlash, perhaps, against the civil rights movements, women’s rights movements, LGBTQ activism, disability activism, post-colonial and indigenous rights campaigns of the last fifty or sixty years. The political right is angry, empowered around the world by electoral gains and successful campaigns. In many ways this is still the establishment, the people who hold the power, regardless of their attempts to pose as ‘populist’ voices. But at the same time they feel under threat from a world where the parameters of acceptable behaviour have gradually shifted. When you have been used to dominance, equality feels like oppression, and when you have been used to pushing other people around with no regard for their feelings, any limits on your own behaviour feels like an assault on your rights.

A lot of this perceived threat comes from anxieties and concerns around speech and language. There is a worry, often expressed, that you cannot say anything these days. And this worry turns into anger: how dare you tell me what I can and cannot say. People are enraged by the argument that their speech might be offensive, or even damaging, to others. They are furious at the idea that their speech might constitute something that needs to be stopped or silenced.

This manifests itself partly as a generational divide, with the ‘boomer’ generation less tolerant of calls to moderate their language, impatient with what they see as the oversensitivities of millennials and Generation Z. Given that baby boomers were actors in some of the twentieth century’s most dramatic fights for civil rights – for women, people of colour and LBGT people – this generational divide can sometimes be overemphasised. But millennials and younger people are much more likely to tolerate limits on freedom of speech, if it means a reduction in hate speech or the protection of minorities. For example, a University of Chicago survey from July 2017 found that only 16 per cent of 18–34 year olds surveyed thought that people on a university campus had the absolute right to use slurs or other language that was intentionally offensive to certain groups, and only 33 per cent thought that people had the absolute right on campus to express political views that were offensive or upsetting to certain groups.[xi] Plenty of younger people are free speech absolutists: plenty of older people are happy to see limits in certain circumstances. But broadly, the tone of the debate might be different for different generations.

Perhaps the generational divide also explains the resurgence of a retro complaint: that of the scourge of ‘political correctness’. The sense that it is a desire to be politically correct that is somehow dampening free speech, preventing people from saying what they really think or mean, is alive and well within this culture war. Orwell, with his concerns about the development of ‘an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question’, and the timid intellectuals who self-censored in order to fit into this orthodoxy, very probably would have railed against the politically correct. (Mind you, Orwell was frequently antisemitic, racist and misogynistic, so it’s possible that his views here aren’t important.)

People are also resistant to the idea that speech might sit within a context, without which it cannot be properly understood. When people want to be able to say certain slurs, for example, they often cite the fact that these slurs have been ‘reclaimed’ by the people who were once their targets. But this is irrelevant: the fact that it is socially acceptable for some people to say some words does not mean that everyone should be allowed to do so. Words, and the way that we put them together as sentences, are not neutral tools of communication; they all carry baggage as well as meaning. And we already censor ourselves, all the time, in order to avoid causing offence or hurting people: we do not, usually, shout swear words in the middle of funerals. Words are powerful when they are put down on a page or when they become speech acts – pretending that they are ‘only’ words is disingenuous.

The point at which speech tips over into action is a difficult one to identify. At my least tolerant, I am tempted to argue that beliefs are only beliefs when they remain inside someone’s head; when I know about your beliefs, that has crossed over into an active behaviour. This means that I do not, for example, really and truly support freedom of speech for people who wish to stand outside abortion clinics and scream insults at the people trying to go inside. I don’t care about the freedom of speech of people who make placards showing foetuses and labelling abortion doctors murderers. I have tried, as a philosophical exercise, and a political one too – as Orwell says, ban that form of protest and who knows what protest will be banned next – but I just can’t bring myself to want to protect their right to do and say such violent, unpleasant things.

Freedom of speech, of course, does not mean freedom from the consequences of that speech. Much of the time, when people demand freedom of speech, what they want is the latter. They want to be able to insult people, or shout slogans, to tell deliberate untruths or incite violence, without facing any repercussions. So a demand for ‘freedom of speech’ has often taken on a more nebulous meaning, which is as much to do with asserting freedom from criticism as it is to do with defending the right to freedom from censorship by governments.

Trying to work out the line here is also tricky: a government can hardly claim that its citizens have freedom of speech by arguing that people are free to say anything they like but that they might be imprisoned for their words. But at the same time, there is a need to balance one person’s freedoms against another’s well-being. There is also a requirement to think critically about degrees of freedom and degrees of harm: someone’s personal freedoms are not infringed that severely because they cannot say the n-word, and the violence behind the word is such that it is worth giving up some freedom to keep people safe from harm.

There also needs to be a clear understanding of how and why people weaponise demands for free speech. Why do some figures find the call for freedom of speech so seductive? Why is it some people’s automatic get-out-of-jail-free card? How do some ideological fights descend into battles over the meaning of free speech, rather than the initial topic under discussion, and how can this be avoided or worked out? This book focuses on the balancing of free speech rights and the ways in which free speech rights are increasingly invoked to try to defend speech or behaviour that should be critiqued or challenged.


As somebody who is currently working in a British university as an academic, I have watched the free speech wars with interest and trepidation. Universities and academia have become spaces in which debates around freedom of speech are increasingly focused. Interestingly, though, this is something that I can see happening mostly from the outside in: people who have not stepped on to a campus in years seem far more concerned about this topic than the great bulk of academics or students.

Some of the key spaces and concepts around which British freedom of speech arguments have coalesced – ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘no-platforming’ – are seen as newly central to university life. A safe space is one in which a particular vulnerable group can be, well, safe: so, for example, spaces for the support of victims of sexual violence, or of racial prejudice. The idea is that these people might want to come together and have conversations without, for example, someone turning up who wants to argue from the perspective of the rapist or the racist. Trigger warnings are a clinical tool that allows survivors of trauma to avoid being ‘triggered’ into re-experiencing that trauma. Teachers, therefore, often use trigger warnings or ‘content notes’ to highlight when a book or film being used in a class includes depictions of upsetting topics. This is exactly the same as the announcement that points up ‘adult content’ or ‘strong language’ in a TV show, or the short text descriptions on a film’s age-rating certificate. Both of these feel, to me, fairly non-controversial, but they have been heralded as proof that we are educating a new generation of ‘snowflake’ students, who cannot handle their views being challenged or their ideas being undermined.

In fact, both policies are aimed at being as inclusive as possible and allowing as many people as possible to participate in conversations. Trigger warnings, certainly, do not stop anybody from being allowed to say anything: rather, they help people who might be affected negatively by that speech to prepare themselves or choose not to expose themselves to that material. Safe spaces prevent people from speaking about a topic in a particular setting, but they do not prevent people from having these conversations in other places, and they only exclude people in order to better enable vulnerable groups to speak freely.

No-platforming means refusing to provide a platform for a speaker because of their views or affiliations. Student unions are especially implicated in this: for example, refusing to platform speakers who have expressed racist, homophobic or transphobic views. Often this leads to a debate about whether these views are acceptable, as well as a wider discussion about whether students can police the views and words of people in this way. The point is, of course, that nobody has a particular right to speak in a particular place, especially not a private space. I remain, as yet, sadly uninvited from giving the keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference or presenting the Oscars, but this does not mean that either organisation has actually no-platformed me. Questions might be raised about which groups within (for example) student unions are dominant, and who gets to invite or disinvite speakers; but the fundamental act of not inviting a speaker is not itself an assault on free speech. Efforts to address this have descended into the farcical: proposals to ban student unions from ‘no-platforming’ raised the spectre of every student union in Britain having to host every person in the world to speak on any topic they desire.

The other point to make here is that I have encountered all three of these topics far more frequently off campus than on it: the only place, in fact, where I have seen safe spaces discussed in detail has been in the British press, despite having worked in British universities for over a decade. There are absolutely limits and threats to free speech in British academia, but they are not the tabloid spectres haunting campuses; right-wing journalists digging up academics’ personal opinions, university administrators monitoring their lecturers’ tweets, and the Prevent duty turning academics into Home Office police are far more pernicious.


Orwell dismissed liberal qualms about whether free speech is possible as unconvincing. But it is perfectly legitimate to question whether it is possible for us to live in a world that grants freedom of speech to every person equally. This is especially true when we start to probe into what ‘speech’ actually entails in this context.

Orwell did not want the right only to speak, as such: he was arguing for the right to write, and not only to write, but to be published. His argument that even bad books get published, even those full of ‘scurrility and slipshod writing’, might be comforting or enraging to many budding writers. But of course, not every book gets published, or at least not by a prestigious publishing house, not because of censorship but because publishing is an extremely competitive industry and book contracts are not simply handed out to everybody who wants them. In 2017 Simon and Schuster dropped Milo Yiannopoulos’s $255,000 book contract when a recording came to light that appeared to reveal the author endorsing paedophilia, and Yiannopoulos subsequently sued the publishers, saying that they should ‘pay for silencing conservatives and libertarians’.[xii] But this claim of silencing was complicated by the leaking of the editorial notes on the manuscript, which described the book as ‘unclear, unfunny’ and ‘a sea of self-aggrandisement and scattershot thinking’.[xiii] It is unclear why a book described in such terms – by its own editor – was deserving of publication in the first place.

Not everybody writes a book; not everybody has the cultural or social capital to do so, or to get their book published, or publicised. If everyone has the theoretical right to freedom of speech, not everybody has the actual ability to be heard. And it is a truism that the people complaining that their freedom of speech has been attacked or denied are often the ones with the loudest voices and biggest platforms.

In 2017 Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, published a piece in the academic journal Third World Quarterly entitled ‘The Case for Colonialism’. In it, Gilley called for the ‘orthodoxy’ that gave Western colonialism ‘a bad name’ to be questioned and instead argued that empires had been ‘both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate’.[xiv] The piece was met with a furious response; fifteen members of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly resigned and a petition asking for a retraction from the journal garnered over 7,000 signatures. And the article was, indeed, removed from the journal website: not because of its controversial content, but because its publication apparently led to ‘serious and credible threats of violence’ against the editor.[xv]

In an editorial for The Times in November 2017, headlined ‘Don’t Feel Guilty About Our Colonial History’, an Oxford professor of theology, Nigel Biggar, defended Gilley’s ‘courageous’ intervention, argued that the history of the British Empire was ‘morally mixed’ and concluded with a call for the British to ‘moderate’ their ‘post-imperial guilt’.[xvi] He also announced a new research project, with himself at the head, which would explore the ‘ethics’ of empire and seek to learn lessons from imperialism that could be applied to the modern world. (Nigel Biggar is also one of the directors of the Free Speech Union.) Imperial historians reading this project proposal were baffled and angry. An open letter, signed by 58 historians from the University of Oxford, set out some key objections. It was, they argued, ill-conceived, ignorant and deeply problematic: why would an academic project seek to rehabilitate empire in this way? What possible lessons about, for example, ‘the cohesion of multicultural societies’ could be drawn from the violent and exploitative histories of imperialism?[xvii] This letter was interpreted by some as an attack on Biggar’s freedom of speech; a Daily Mail article referred to the letter as an act of ‘collective online bullying’ and described Biggar as the ‘latest in a long line of eminent academics to be shamed online for expressing their views’.[xviii]

Biggar is keen to portray himself as a victim of censorship, a brave martyr set upon by political-correctness-gone-mad imperial historians who are unwilling to countenance alternative viewpoints. The Daily Mail continued its campaign by naming and shaming a cabal of ‘loud mouthed, Tory-loathing, anti-Israel academics’ who propagate an ‘ugly totalitarianism’ of safe spaces and trigger warnings.[xix] But this fundamentally doesn’t make any sense. Biggar has been able to share his views across a variety of media platforms, including national newspapers, and his project is still going ahead, despite the serious issues that have been raised. Historians (such as myself) who object to Biggar’s research are entitled to share our critiques of his ideas and his practice, and – given the political context – do so at risk of personal attack from an often hostile media, which is quick to interpret any critique of British history as a criticism of Britain today. But by crying out that his ‘free speech’ has been threatened, Biggar has rallied a portion of the press to his defence, and has succeeded in gaining an even larger platform for his views.

There are lessons to be learned from this; Orwell, with all his empire apologism, might argue again that it shows that it is the ‘liberals who fear liberty and intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect’.[xx] But the lessons I draw from this is that free speech is often only available to those who are already powerful; that the people who shout loudest about their speech being denied are still, at the end of the day, the ones whose voices carry furthest. Freedom of speech is an essential right and a powerful duty, but it is not the only thing that matters; the free speech wars are taking part on a much wider cultural battleground.


The book

This book is split into four sections. First, we consider some of the threats to free speech historically and in the present day, and some of the efforts that have been or are being made to protect it. How has the freedom of speech been contested and challenged throughout history? What are the longer roots of claims to freedom of speech? Jodie Ginsberg, the former CEO of Index on Censorship, opens this section with a powerful defence of the right to free speech, and a call for people to work harder to defend it in practice as well as in principle. Ed Packard explores the history of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, and argues that a historical space for freedom of speech has become a meta battleground for the alt-right. Sam Popowich examines how the issue of ‘de-platforming’ writers and speakers has exposed a significant rift among librarians and library communities. Emma Harvey develops these ideas, by exploring some of the practical issues around free speech through her experience of running a community arts centre. Victoria Stiles examines the history of Nazi publishing policies to explain how controlling the publication of ideas and arguments can be just as destructive to freedom of speech as burning books. Finally, Andrew Phemister examines the history of the ‘boycott’, and argues that, far from limiting freedom, the ability to enact boycotts is in fact a vital tool within democracies.

Second, we think about some of the ways that claims to free speech can be critiqued and challenged. How has ‘free speech’ been weaponised? When is it a claim made in bad faith? This section begins with Omar Khan, the former head of the Runnymede Trust, exploring how anti-racist activists can support freedom of speech while simultaneously rejecting the premise that racists themselves are merely upholding or defending these freedoms. Neville Morley examines how Socrates is evoked in debates around freedom of speech and what the people who wish to identify themselves as ‘Socratic’ are really trying to achieve. Imen Neffati examines the case of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2015 to examine how arguments around laïcité have privileged some rights over others. Turning the idea of ‘speaking truth to power’ on its head, Nina Lyon argues that power often resists speaking truth, and shows how these tactics affect public and political discourse. Janna Kraus uses Switzerland as a case study to examine what happens when a polity believes itself to be ‘neutral’ in these debates. Finally, Aaron Ackerley explores media history to argue that newspapers and journalists have used claims to freedom of speech to justify unethical or morally dubious journalistic practices and to escape external oversight.

The final two sections explore two spaces in which the free speech wars are currently being fought. First, we think about the role of universities and campuses in this debate. As outlined in this introduction, the university and the space of academia more widely has a particular salience for the issue of free speech in today’s world. Shaun McDaid and Catherine McGlynn open this section with an exposition of their research into British university campuses and the Prevent duty, the counter-radicalisation measures that form part of the British Home Office’s counter-terrorism strategy. Gabriel Moshenska recounts a moment when his own teaching became the centre of a ‘trigger warning’ controversy, and reflects on how this fits into wider media debates about academia. Grace Lavery argues that academic freedom should not be extended to the right to ‘deadname’ or misgender academics or students, and writes to establish a baseline protocol for scholarly discourse with trans and non-binary students and faculty. Paul Whickman writes about his experience in teaching a course on the history of censorship and free speech, and how to approach this topic in a way that encourages a multiplicity of voices in the classroom. Adam Standring, Daniel Cardoso and António Diaz use the Nova Portugalidade affair as a case study to explore how these issues play out in campus politics in Portugal. Finally, Marta Santiváñez examines some of the recent British discussions around freedom of speech on university campuses, especially exploring moments when students have had their own right to speak or protest curtailed by universities themselves.

Finally, we examine the internet as the new Wild West of free speech. Of course, many of the chapters touch on the role of the internet. But these chapters really push at how this realm has developed, and some of the challenges and consequences of the internet for this debate. Ben Whitham explores the rise of a transnational racist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic far-right movement, and how figures such as Jordan Peterson have used calls for freedom of speech to push this movement into new spaces seemingly beyond criticism. Henry Price explores the ‘Red Pill’ phenomenon to examine how men’s rights activists (MRAs) have used a free speech argument to try to defend ‘truths’ about their reactionary gender politics. Penny Andrews examines the ways in which ‘fandoms’ of particular charismatic figures have become, on the internet and in the wider media, increasingly vociferous, and how they have used the freedom of speech to launch and sustain campaigns against groups that they perceive as threats. Finally, Helen Pallett explores how the promise of the internet as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ has created a particular context for speech acts, and argues that this metaphor has in fact become increasingly unhelpful as a democratic ideal.


This book is intended not just a set of empirical chapters about contexts and events, but as an intervention that attempts to help the reader navigate the debates in this culture war. Not every chapter shares the same perspective: in fact, the authors frequently disagree among themselves about these issues. But what this book hopes to make clear is that this is not a binary issue, and nor is it one that can be rationalised out of existence; people’s feelings about this topic are as important as their arguments. We need, above all, to be wary about how this debate is being weaponised, and to be suspicious – or at least sceptical – of the claims that people are making. As authors, we hope that this intervention might help to equip readers, not necessarily to take a specific side in or route out of this free speech war, but to understand the shape of the terrain, and to defend themselves and aid others where needed.


The free speech wars, edited by Charlotte Lydia Riley, is available now.











[i] Ashley Cowburn, ‘Toby Young deletes thousands of tweets amid row over his universities regulator appointment’, The Independent, 3 January 2013, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[ii] ‘About’, Free Speech Union, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[iii] ‘Statement of Values’, Free Speech Union, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[iv] George Orwell, ‘The Freedom of the Press’, c. 1945, proposed preface to Animal Farm, Times Literary Supplement, 15 September 1972, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] George Orwell, ‘England, Your England’, in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (London: Searchlight Books, 1941), (accessed 10 July 2020).

[viii] Orwell, ‘The Freedom of the Press’.

[ix] The United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), (accessed 10 July 2020).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] ‘GenForward July 2017 Toplines’, Gen Forward, University of Chicago, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[xii] Clark Mindock, ‘Milo Yiannopoulous sues Simon & Schuster for cancelling his book deal: “They have to pay for silencing conservatives”’, The Independent, 11 July 2017, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[xiii] Martin Belam, ‘“Unclear, unfunny, delete”: editor’s notes on Milo Yiannopoulos book revealed’, The Guardian, 28 December 2017, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[xiv] Bruce Gilley, ‘The case for colonialism’, Third World Quarterly, (accessed 10 July 2020). As this article has now been withdrawn from publication, this reference is to the withdrawal notice.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Nigel Biggar, ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’, The Times, 30 November 2017, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[xvii] ‘Ethics and empire: an open letter from Oxford scholars’, The Conversation, 19 December 2017, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[xviii] Eleanor Harding, ‘Oxford academics accused of bullying Empire-defending don’, Daily Mail, 21 December 2017, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[xix] Guy Adams, ‘Oxford University is home to Tory-loathing, anti-Israel academics’, Daily Mail, 23 December 2017, (accessed 10 July 2020).

[xx] Orwell, ‘The Freedom of the Press’.




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