‘No – not that free speech’ – How ‘free speech!’ advocates can quickly get tied up in knots

16th July 2021

This was a remarkable tweet:

You really would need a heart of stone not to laugh like a drain.

It would appear GB News are in favour of ‘free speech’! – but not that free speech.

It was wrong sort of free speech.


How do those who say they are arguing from first principle get into such knots?

It is a problem in constitutional matters too.

Some of those who supported Brexit did so, they say, to ‘return power back to Westminster’.

But such Brexiters generally said nothing (or little) about a Brexit-supporting executive seeking to take power from parliament – for example in ensuring that the article 50 notification was done on the basis of a parliamentary act rather than the prime minister’s discretion.

That was the wrong sort of parliamentary supremacy.

And so on – there are many other examples.


The answer is, I think, about how people like to invoke principle in political, policy and legal matters.

Say you like [x] or are opposed to [y].

You can say ‘I like [x]!’ or ‘I oppose [y]!’.

You could, but it may not get you very far.

And so you gild the utterance: ‘[x] is good!’ and ‘[y] is bad!’.

But even that can not be enough, and so you invoke principles.

And you end up saying that liking or disliking [x or y] is matter of ‘free speech!’.

So, take for example that a person may dislike a certain minority [z] and would like to say so.

They could say: ‘I dislike [z]’ – but they not want to say this, at least aloud in polite company

Or: ‘[z] are bad people’ – though again they may be deterred.

And so they resort to ‘disliking [z] is quite frankly a matter for an individual quite frankly, and quite frankly people should have the right to say so, quite frankly, as it is free speech.’

Here, the resort to principle to being used to frame a proposition that the person making the utterance would not want to say in a more direct form.


The problem is that the person making the utterance is invoking principle as a matter of rhetorical convenience.

And this is an error.

For the principle of free speech is, well, a principle.

And as a principle it has application generally, if not absolutely.

And so it applies to utterances with which you will strongly disagree.

This is why those who (say they) believe in free speech as a matter of general or even absolute principle end up so quickly in knots.

How those who want to parade their anti-woke offensiveness are (genuinely) horrified by the taking of the knee, or a white poppy, or inclusive language employed by a third party.

It is because their resort to principle is a cynical rhetorical device.

Their only interest in ‘free speech!’ is that it allows them to make utterances that, for whatever reason, they do not wish to make in more direct ways.

They do not want to say that they like [abhorrent sentiment] or that [abhorrent sentiment] is good.

They instead just want to say it and get away with it, but without any implications.

Last week I even had a tweeter telling me that the England footballers expressing political opinions should not be selected for their clubs or country – and when I looked at their bio, it said ‘supporter of free speech’.


This, of course, is not just a problem with those with which you disagree.

Anyone engaged in policy or legal or political discussion can make the same mistake.

And this is because we all seek to gild our utterances, as it is a natural temptation to big up one’s opinions.

The best guard is to only use first principles in circumstances where you know that you would also invoke the same principle when it was something applied to something with which you dislike, or even oppose.

The resort to principle – rightly – can have considerable purchase power in a discussion, but that power also can be devalued quickly.

And in particular: the principle of free speech has no real purchase if it is only to gild sentiments to which you do not object.


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15 thoughts on “‘No – not that free speech’ – How ‘free speech!’ advocates can quickly get tied up in knots”

  1. QV the DUP pushing a tweet today with Jim Shannon calling for the people of Northern Ireland to have the same rights as the rest of the UK. Whilst remaining fiercely opposed to gay rights and the same abortion rules as the rest of the UK. They’re presumably the wrong sort of rights…

  2. ah yes I believe in free speech as long as you agree with me, a surprisingly widespread attitude across the political spectrum

  3. Evelyn Beatrice Hall needs to be invoked on a regular basis – “ I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

    For the record, David, I am in full agreement with you on this.

  4. It seems to me that most people who claim to support free speech are in fact doing the opposite. They want to say things, often bigoted things, without anyone reproaching them for it. But no one is stopping them saying anything, so their freedom of speech is intact. What they want is to stop others from reacting to what they have said. In other words, to curb the freedom of speech of those who would point out the bigotry in what they have said.

    1. I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

      I’ve always taken the view that people should be free to say what they like.

      But with it, they have to accept the consequences.

      Some of these consequences might be society criticising their position. Or refusing to give them a platform to speak on. Or, if society so chooses, to criminalise what they have said.

      You have the freedom to speak. But we have the freedom to respond.

      1. Free speech with consequences is not free at all. Speech is not free unless you can exercise it without losing your job, being fined, or being taken to the dungeons of the Inquisition to be tortured.

        1. If you define “free speech” as the ability to say whatever you like, whenever you like, however you like, to whomever you like, with no adverse consequences whatsoever, then there is and has never been such thing as free speech. As soon as you open your mouth, your listener will form a judgement about how much of an idiot you are.

          1. Yet if you define free speech disregarding consequences then you’d have to then say we are free to steal, rape and murder because you can do those things as long as you accept the consequences.

            Someone having a different opinion of you is not really a consequence. It’s only when they act on that opinion it might be. And if all they do is argue with you the consequences are mild enough to not realistically infringe freedom. Otherwise we have no freedom since anything we do might make someone else have an opinion on you.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. The ideas of free speech are being both abused and undermined by left and right at present in our binary world. Thank you for these paragraphs of reason.

  6. The principle of freedom of speech has been a useful device for those seeking the freedom to lie, deceive and manipulate the records without any fear of punishment. It appears to be this freedom from speech that empowers our current government.

  7. Here im Germany we don’t have freedom of speech we have “Meinungsfreiheit” aka freedom of opinion wit ONE punishable exemption and that is denying the Holocaust.
    on any other Occasion even when you call the police bad Words as long as you formulate it as your Opinion you are free to do so.
    but I don’t recommend testing it.
    Btw I heard many British People saying that Parliament is the only Place in the UK where freedom of speech really exists

  8. I think it is an unconscious rhetorical device. Too often “free speech” is used as a classification, rather than a principle. How often have we heard question “is this free speech?” or the defence “it’s called free speech”?

    It’s treating free speech as a type of statement rather than a set of principles governing what can be said when and where that allows the GB News position. Indeed it makes it quite consistent: if free speech refers to the content of speech then differing contents can have differing statuses as “free speech”. It’s like any other classification of speech, “humorous”, “left wing”, “right wing”, “poetic” and so on.

    I think part of our problem stems from not calling out the misuse of the term possibly because we know what’s being said. It’s a lot quicker to say “is this free speech?” rather than “is this something that, although controversial, someone should be allowed to say in this manner and this context?” and, as we understand the first question, we let the imprecision slide. Then we’re stuck with people adopting the misuse as the actual use.

  9. This is a matter of contract, not free speech. Harri was employed by GBN to do a broadcasting job. It is reasonable for GBN to restrict him from using the show as a platform to express his views. There are legal restrictions on broadcasters expressing opinions, on grounds of balance. Some people are even restricted by contract from expressing their opinions outside the workplace, lest they bring their employer into disrepute.

    But should he have been disciplined by his employer for expressing this particular view? Expressing some views, such as by wearing a poppy in November, is practically compulsory on TV. So GBN can’t claim no opinion can be expressed.

    Certainly, disciplining Harri has not gone down well. Meanwhile football presenters, who we might expect to have greater reason to show solidarity with those they so vocally support on the pitch, have not taken the knee on air in a TV studio, to my knowledge. Perhaps they prefer not to put their employer in a difficult position.

    1. It can be both a matter of contract and of free speech. A contract can infringe upon someone’s free speech. And in this case it is hypocritical for a contract to infringe the free speech of someone appearing on the channel when one of the selling point sof the channel is supposed to be its support for free speech.

      Free speech cannot mean freedom to agree: it must also mean freedom to disagree.

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