You are here:   Censorship > We Only Pretend to Defend Free Speech

Not-so-brave new world: After Rushdie's fatwa, fear of violent reaction silenced liberal critics of Islam (Clint Spaulding/AP/Press Association Images)

Why write a defence of freedom of speech? The postmodern Left regards the idea as pernicious and contemptible. Few go as far as the American literary theorist Stanley Fish, author of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too, who announced, "The only way to fight hate speech or racist speech is to recognise it as the speech of your enemy. What you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out." But the professor is hardly the only "liberal" to believe that the state has the right to suppress offensive speech as if it were crushing an insurrection.

Laws and taboos against upsetting the tender-minded are everywhere. Polite society, by which I mean not only successive governments, but the wider bureaucracy and mainstream opinion, holds that it is wrong to cause offence, even to those whose views are offensive; wicked to be disrespectful even of those who are not worthy of respect. You can see today's censorious tendency at work in the explosions of fury on the internet and in the mainstream media modern Britons enjoy when they seek distraction from the economic crisis. The complainants do not merely wish to deliver well-deserved condemnations of Jeremy Clarkson, Jonathan Ross and other celebrity oafs. They want them punished or fired, or in the case of the Twitter users who posted a homophobic columnist's home address online, they appear to want them dead as well.

The classical liberal John Stuart Mill believed that the law could only punish the direct incitement to a crime. In his example, when agitators claimed that corn dealers starved the poor, the state had no right to silence them. Only if the agitators said the same to an angry mob gathered outside a corn dealer's home could the police move in. Mill does not say that the law should punish the incitement of hatred against corn dealers. Even if their critics made their neighbours despise them as rapacious capitalists, even if the criticism was unfair and caused them financial harm, corn dealers could not go to court.

How many liberals believe in Mill's liberalism today? Most reject his tolerant injunctions because they want to defend the social revolution of the late 20th century. They are opposed to racism, homophobia and misogyny for good reason, and know that the struggles against them extend human freedom. Whereas Mill would only allow the police to arrest a demagogue causing direct harm by whipping up a mob outside a mosque or a gay bar, they want to regulate writing and speech which does not directly cause crime in the name of a greater good. To use the phrase of the philosopher Joel Feinberg, they have replaced Mill's "harm principle" with an "offence principle", which holds that societies are allowed to punish speech that people find exceptionally offensive.
View Full Article
Anon 1
July 8th, 2013
3:07 PM
Freedom of speech workplace is not only under threat from the people at the top, but from any over sensitive political activist. The "equality act" 2010 is the most ironically named bit of legislation ever - it says "intolerant person can silence tolerant people and tolerant peole have no say or comeback to question this". The trouble is, we allowed an inoccuous seeming piece of very generic legislation through parliament when we would never have allowed through legislation to specifically ban any of the million and one things the "liberals" (more irony here) feel they have to object to and get banned. Consider how much time we all spend at work and you realise the hold the vile freedom stealers have already clamped upon us, with an attitude of suspicion and hear. The HR departments have become the new secret police, and they have us all spying on each other.

April 8th, 2012
2:04 PM
Nicholas Cohen is so right! One only has to observe the Soviet KGB style of British Press Censorship which masquerades under the titles "Moderation" and "Moderated By...". The "Moderators" are professional censors obeying the demands of upper management. It is truly sad that a protest comment, such as this one, will never get past the "Moderators".

February 6th, 2012
3:02 PM
re: Daniel Lionsden The makers of Love Thy Neighbour had the same worthy motives as those of Till Death Us Do Part. They deliberately had both male characters spout racist statements but during every episode they were in the same pub or each other's houses. Their wives got along just fine and frequently stepped in to force the men to see sense. I guess the makers hoped to deflate the racists insults by having both male characters use them equally. It reinforced the underlying similarities of both couples - we're all the same.

Dr Howard Fredrics
January 15th, 2012
9:01 PM
It appears from this article that Nick Cohen has written what promises to be a fascinating book. Alas, it also appears that his book will ignore the other "elephant in the room," the misuse and abuse of anti-harassment laws in Britain to silence free speech and to chill discourse of public concern. Public officials, wealthy individuals and companies in Britain remain able to harness the powers of the police and Crown Prosecution to pursue publishers who would dare to expose demonstrable wrongdoing by these officials and individuals. What would be considered normal discourse in the US creates more embarrassment than can be borne by members of the British hierarchy. Although some of these prosecutions have ultimately failed, albeit only after nearly bankrupting their targets, one recent one against a man of modest means, 74 year old retired science teacher, Ian Burgess, has thus far succeeded. I encourage readers to familiarize themselves with the following case story, which appeared only in a local newspaper in Surrey:-

January 13th, 2012
10:01 AM
Very interesting article by Nick Cohen. My only beef is with the British habit of adapting American political labels. Stanley Fish isn't a 'liberal', although that's what they call him in the US: he is a radical authoritarian socialist of the worst kind. To call him 'liberal' would no doubt have Mill and his philosophical brethren turning in their graves.

January 9th, 2012
6:01 PM
No intention to engage with Cohen's ideas here, rather just to point out the irony of a free speech champion who edits and truncates to suit his point. The interview with Stanley Fish that Cohen quotes is available here: Here is the full extract: The correct response to a vision or a morality that you despise is not to try and cure it or to make its adherents sit down and read John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, that's not going to do the job. The only way to fight hate speech or racist speech is to recognize it as the speech of your enemy and what you do in response to the speech of your enemy is not prescribe a medication for it but attempt to stamp it out. So long as Critical Race Theory and others fall into the liberal universalist assumption of regarding hate speech as some kind of anomaly which could be recognized as such by everyone, they're going to lose the game. They will win the game only if they really try to win it, rather than falling in with Justice Brandeis' pronouncement that "Sunshine is the best disinfectant". Cohen truncates the stuff about political struggle between citizens, and runs the snippet that suits him into this: "But the professor is hardly the only "liberal" to believe that the state has the right to suppress offensive speech as if it were crushing an insurrection". In other words, Cohen attributesan argument about calling for 'state repression'that Fish did not make. Now read Cohen again on free speech.

Daniel Lionsden
January 8th, 2012
4:01 PM
"I do not want to go back to a country where jokes about the niggers, the Pakis, the yids and the micks were all over the television, I haven't..." The hoary old canard of inventing supposed thought-crimes in the past is useful in justifying repression and censorship in the present; indeed re-writing history was one of Winston Smith's chief functions. When was the time when all these anti-nigger, paki etc jokes rife all over TV? It certainly did not exist before Alf Garnet who was an anti-Conservative propaganda tool created by far left fanatic Jonny Speight. So the Left create the stereotype and then pose as the solution. Thus the leftist BBC introduced to Britain (and to the English speaking world, since Garnett was soon taken to America as Archie Bunker) a new strain in shock comedy unknown before then. This easy-laugh strategy was largely not taken up afterwards except in a tiny few notorious and unsuccessful shows such as Love Thy Neighbour. Hardly 'all over the tv' was it? As usual the exception is taken as the norm.

December 29th, 2011
12:12 PM
"Conservatives said I should condemn political correctness. As I do not want to go back to a country where jokes about the niggers, the Pakis, the yids and the micks were all over the television, I haven't..." Then, sadly, your book is fundamentally flawed. It is perhaps harder to counter implicit censorship than the more usual kind. At least a D-Notice is signed by a committee or a superinjunction a judge. Who decreed that Alan Hansen should lose his job because his vocabulary wasn't sufficiently zeitgeisty?

Anna M
December 27th, 2011
6:12 PM
Not sure wherethis man has been, but this kind of political corectness gone mad analysis doesn't really correspond with recent world events. This really is turning in to a hobby horse for a certain kind of lapsed leftist journalist. Not sure why Cohen's fundamentalist right to offend and insult, is any better than what he argues against. Both different side of the same coin. A little sophisticated thinking is required to get us out of the dilemma. This not particularly useful controbutuion. Which of course may what our culture wars warrior is after. With us or againt. Neitehr thanks.

L Casell
December 26th, 2011
10:12 AM
Yes, what the world has been lacking is hostility to Islam, of the vague undifferentiated . One can't have enough. Bound to help, accusing others, with out seeing the rest of the dialogue. Perhaps Cohen wants another war like Iraq. That is sure to help. This is neither helpful or insightful. Just more of the same.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.