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Freedom of speech for all?

This article is over 6 years, 3 months old
The Tories claim to be battling to defend free speech in universities, but Sadie Robinson explains that not everyone has the same freedom of speech as the rich
Issue 2586
Western politicians pretending to defend free speech are hypocrites
Western politicians pretending to defend free speech are hypocrites (Pic: Tim Sanders)

The Tories are apparently desperate to defend free speech. Universities minister Jo Johnson has appointed odious free schools fanatic Toby Young to head up a new Office for Students.

This will police universities to check whether they are protecting freedom of speech. Those found wanting could be fined — or even suspended from operating.

This is part of pushing the government’s “British values” which supposedly include free speech. It’s nonsense.

There is little freedom of speech under capitalism. Laws such as copyright and libel law limit what can be said and published.

But more importantly capitalism prioritises the rich—so those with the most money get to shout the loudest. The tiny group of people who own and control the media have a daily platform to push their opinions.

Government ministers and those deemed “respectable” get invited onto news bulletins to air their views. Meanwhile the state limits the right of ordinary people to express themselves.

In Britain the government’s Prevent strategy has seen Muslim speakers banned, children questioned at school and Islamic groups harassed.

The state banned schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality” until the law was repealed in 2003. Today schools have been ordered to promote “British values” to children.

Meanwhile the Trade Union Act makes it even harder for workers to make their voices heard through strikes. Their slashing of legal aid cuts makes it harder for poorer people to challenge injustice and fight for their rights in the courts.

States also sometimes use violence, repression or censorship to suppress dissenting views. Protesters have being jailed after using their free speech by joining demonstrations, such as the student fees protests in 2010 or the anti-poll tax protest in 1990.

And governments in the US and Britain are currently trying to impose more restrictions on the internet. In the US groups seen as “controversial”, such as revolutionary socialists, could be banned by internet service providers.

The right presents itself as the champion of free speech fending off intolerant Muslims and left wing students. In reality the left has been at the forefront of defending free speech.

This includes defending the right of Palestinian societies to organise. And building solidarity with activists hounded by the state in Egypt.

It means supporting people facing persecution such as Chris Stephenson, a socialist lecturer in Istanbul who was charged with possessing “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”.

But supporting free speech doesn’t mean that anything goes. People who talk of “political correctness gone mad” and claim they can’t say what they want really want the freedom to be offensive.

Context matters. There is a big difference between protesting at the powerful and targeting oppressed groups.


When the Charlie Hebdo magazine published cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed in 2012, it claimed it was exercising its freedom of speech. Yet when people in France wanted to protest against the cartoons the French authorities banned the protests.

What Charlie Hebdo did was make Muslims, who were already under severe attack, an object of ridicule by mocking their faith. The cartoons made it easier for every other racist to have a go at Muslims and made Islamophobia more acceptable.

It was the same in 2005, when the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published Islamophobic cartoons. The next year, a number of right wing papers across Europe reprinted them.

They loftily declared that they were promoting free speech. In reality they were promoting racism.

Die Welt in Germany said the reprinting of the cartoons was justified because free speech is an “absolute”. We’ve already seen that this is rubbish.

In fact, everyone accepts limits to free speech. That’s why, for example, the mainstream press wouldn’t publish child pornography in the name of free speech.

The right claims that left wingers who oppose bigots are intolerant. But they are attacking the left in order to advance their own nasty agenda.

For instance, some have denounced progressive anti-racist campaigns such as the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford university. Others have smeared Palestine supporters as antisemitic for criticising Israel.

Jo Johnson claimed that students at some universities had drawn up lists of “trigger words” that shouldn’t be used, and demanded books be removed from libraries.

Yet much of the media’s reporting on the banning of speakers at universities is false or exaggerated. The right are seizing on either false or exceptional examples to push through a more general attack.

Socialist Worker is not in favour of banning people from speaking—except if they are fascists.

Fascists aren’t just people who have obnoxious ideas. They organise to try and bring about a society that will get rid of all our rights. To defend freedom of speech for Nazis is aid groups that want to demolish all of our freedoms.

And allowing them a platform lets Nazis pose as just another legitimate, political party. It helps them to hide their true agenda.

Student groups, unions and others have every right to democratically decide to have a no platform policy for fascists in their colleges, universities and workplaces.

But no platform is a specific tactic that has proven effective in stopping fascist groups from growing. It shouldn’t be applied to everyone who holds reactionary opinions.

So it was wrong for Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten to print racist cartoons, but they shouldn’t be banned. Likewise the Daily Mail and Sun newspapers, both of which publish racist and sexist cartoons, images and articles, shouldn’t be banned.


Giving the state more powers to decide what can and can’t be said and published will mean more clampdowns on left wing and oppressed groups.

It is understandable why some people do favour bans on racists, sexists, homophobes and transphobes. There is real oppression under capitalism and many people suffer violence and abuse because of it. This leads to all kinds of reactions and arguments about how to respond.

But the best response is one that empowers people. So there should be protests against sexists, racist and Tories.

When the racist Ukip party launched its manifesto for last year’s general election, Socialist Worker supporters were at the heart of a protest that disrupted it. Socialists and others have led protests against the ­anti-abortionists including the Spuc group, and demonstrations at Miss World contests.

Socialist Worker supported the Filipino health workers who rallied outside the Daily Mail offices in 2015 in protest at a racist feature.

We are for challenging the sexists and the racists—through actions by ordinary people, not bans from the authorities. This kind of action can give people more confidence and involve more people in political activity.

Right wingers, who have no qualms about banning Muslim speakers, claim that such protests undermine free speech. Some have said that protests against MPs undermine democracy. In fact these things are expressions of free speech and democracy. We should accept no limits on our rights to protest against the powerful.

Organising protests is also an opportunity to engage with people who might hold some reactionary ideas. Under capitalism, people tend to have a mix of ideas. They may support the NHS on the one hand and back more immigration controls on the other.

It would be wrong to write off these people because we don’t like some of their views. The dominant ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class, so many people will accept some of them.

The solution isn’t bans that shut down debate. Instead we should be confident about winning people away from racist or sexist ideas—and fight to engage people in struggles that can transform them.

This has been done before. During the 1970s women fought for trade unions to support abortion rights—and they won. Workers also successfully organised to shift unions over other issues, such as opposing homophobia.

Socialists want the maximum freedom of speech, not as an end in itself but so that people can speak out against the system.

We also want a socialist world where freedom of speech isn’t crushed by the rich.

Find out more

  • Should fascists be allowed freedom of speech?
  • Should we be in favour of free speech?
  • Fascism: What it is and How to Fight it by Leon Trotsky
  • Countering extremism in British schools? by Theresa O’Toole and John Holmwood £12.99
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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