by Sam Fowles
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre everybody wants to remind us that they support free speech.
But the new vogue for Article 10 has its drawbacks. Mehdi Hasan calls them “free speech fundamentalists”. I’d call them apologists for racism, sexism and homophobia, but I lack Mehdi’s pith. These people equate the denial of a platform (often for the most extreme and offensive views) with the denial of the right to free expression. Brendan O’Neill of Spiked.com argues that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a more violent symptom of a general intolerance for free speech which stretches across Europe. Mr O’Neill was one of those scheduled to speak at the Oxford University abortion event blackballed for not including a single woman on its panel. He cites social media campaigns against Dapper Laughs and Page Three of The Sun as evidence for his theory. Spiked has even starting its own campaign, “Free Speech Now”. In the Times Education Supplement Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, argues that policies like NUS’s “No Platform”, which bans individuals who are racist, misogynist, or homophobic from speaking at member institutions, represent an attack on freedom of speech.
Mehdi is astute to point out that the right to freedom of speech does not create a duty to be offensive. But there is a more important distinction to be drawn: “Expression” (which is a right) is not the same as “platform” (which is a privilege). Having a right to free speech means that one cannot be punished for one’s expression or coerced into changing that which one chooses to express. The obvious caveat is the prohibition against using one’s expression to incite violence against others (In much the same way that one can’t use one’s freedom of movement to commit violent acts). This is different from having a platform. While freedom of expression requires protecting all individuals equally against coercion, the issue of platform revolves around questions of who gets to use their freedom of expression from a more privileged position than others.