The Limits of Free Speech


Its been a funny old week.  It began with two minority communities (t’tranz and newspaper columnists) slogging it out in the pages of the unpopular press; and ended with a knockabout laugh-a-minute debate on Leveson, hosted by the Soho Skeptics, and various peeps taking to the pages to declare their unswerving and absolute support for freedom of expression.

That’s sort of apt, given that it was also the week when I went to cry over Les Miserables, a film which also bears witness to the futility of rich elites taking to the barricades without securing the support of the masses.  It also feels far too simplistic: a bowdlerisation of an important debate about freedoms in the 21st century, conducted in the language of the 18th.

It’s been a week, too, when the oppression Olympics were in full flow, with pride of place given to performances of Victim Ju-jitsu.  You know: the one where everyone paddles desperately to demonstrate that they ARE the weakest  link, whereupon they pwn the debate and get to take home a year’s supply of Anne Robinson.

Let’s look at some competing perspectives.

Dangerous speech

We are mostly agreed that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is A Bad Thing, and anyone doing so should be punished to the full extent of the law. That is because this counts as a ‘speech act’:  words that have real and direct effects in the world.  A smidgeon down from speech acts like “Hand over the money or I’ll shoot”, which is actually a threat.

Also bad: “I have a bomb!”, in a loud voice at a Royal Garden Party.  Or dressing up as batman and scaling London monuments. Given the terrorist threat, say the police, this is a foolish thing to do and could get you shot. Ditto dressing as a Brazilian electrician.


This is the natural follow-on from speech acts.  “Those bastard blacks/jews/women/gays {insert insult here} are taking our jobs: kill them!” is also a bit of A Bad Thing to say and therefore probably shouldn’t be said.  Certainly not in the context of a public forum in front of a baying mob of several hundred EDL supporters.

Abusive language

This one is harder to pin down.  Call someone a “cunt!”, outside of a full-on lesbian clinch, and you’ll probably be done for hate speech.  This is less than incitement, but still can make other people feel pretty uncomfortable and amount to bullying and exclusion from common spaces, like the workplace.  Picking on other people’s personal habits and characteristics may be abuse, although – here’s where the press idea of free speech oft parts company from other people’s – it can certainly be argued that being rude about someone with power and privilege is far less abusive than picking on a disempowered minority.

Privileged language

OMG!  Will the line-up never end? This is subtler than abuse, but possibly more pernicious. It’s using language in such a way that societal norms are pretty much left unsaid: only “the other” is identified as such, which means that minorities and those with less power and privilege are always left arguing catch-up.  Because, pace 1984, the grammar of political discourse makes certain sentiments almost unsayable.  Double-unplusgood-think!

To their credit, feminists made a lot of the early running in developing this idea – although many freedom-of-speechites don’t like it because it argues that the structure of language can, itself, be an oppressive act and that, when speaking, people should mind their p’s and q’s (and all 24 other letters as well).

Libellous language

This is the radical idea that I should not be allowed to write that Lord Rim-Bin Tin Tin is a paedophile and expect to escape with my bank balance intact – unless, of course, I have the photos, the witness statements, and a signed confession from Lord Rim-Bin himself (with apologies to any real life Lord Rim-Bin’s out there: I didn’t mean you!).

The press are in two minds about this. It is clearly outrageous when it stops them from exposing the possible wrongdoing of thieves, perverts, philanderers, Peter Tatchell and bleeding heart liberals.  It is obviously simple common sense and a bulwark of civilised society when it prevents lefty communists saying nasty things about Paul Dacre.


Oops! The fly in the ointment.  “Its just a joke!” is, as any feminist knows, the oldest oppressive trick in the book, being a claim by an oppressor with privilege to the right to insult and put down whilst simultaneously dissociating himself from the insult delivered.  It’s the highest form of masculine passive aggressivity and a favourite of those who would defend free speech to the death, etc. People objecting to “only jokes” are  just humourless wimmin and should shut up. In the name of free expression, of course.

However, as “twitterjoketrial” made clear, joking about things like blowing up an airport can land you in very hot water indeed.  Unless you are a professional comedian and make the joke on stage.

But then the Daily Mail might not like it as they didn’t like the “only jokes” about the Queen in C4’s New Year show, demanding that such bilge not be aired ever again, anywhere, in future.  Thereby demonstrating beyond a shadow their absolute support for freedom (and can we have a knighthood, please, Ma’am!).

Talking of Twitter

People should of course be free to say what they want on twitter, cause its “only words”. Except, if people say nasty things about other people on twitter, that might be bullying, so it isn’t only words, so they shouldn’t say it. And, you know, I’m half in agreement with that, because when one person tells you you’re a twit, it slides off your back, but when 10 tell you all at once, the lump forms in your throat and when a few more do ditto AND start following you round the twittersphere and asking their friends to come and look, that really IS bullying and a speech act and shouldn’t happen.

Only what is the difference between ten people with 100 followers each making 10 individual insults and one person with 1,000 followers doing the same? And when one person makes a rude tweet and is called on it, and then they complain about the calling and the caller complains back and… Oh, this is complicated and it’s doing my head in and, actually, I don’t know the answer here.

Except I do know the press isn’t altogether in favour of free tweet, because several free speechist papers have been assiduous in issuing writs to protect their journalists from “intimidation”.

Press rights: the freedom to comment

And its back to the press which, in this interwebbed ultimate free age is happy to publish all sorts of stuff “above-the-line” – but will moderate out of existence similar or even identical material posted by the great unwashed in the comments below the line. This might be called as hypocrisy, but is actually really them defending our freedoms from those who would abuse them! And it is in no way a double standard (apparently), because the press are signed to a code of conduct under which it is not allowed to abuse an individual named person on grounds of race, gender, orientation, etc., — but they will not agree to accord similar rights to groups of unnamed persons, because that would be restrictive. Ok.

But their moderation codes do just that, because, you know: you really can’t trust the public with this speech lark.  You never know what they might say.

Smut peddlers

These horrid people really should not be allowed and should be sent on their bikes by all right thinking mobs. I know that ’cause I read it in The Sun.  And the Mail. And once upon a time, in the News of the World, too.  And, strangely, in many of the upper market rags as well. For, as we all know — and some academics have argued cogently: the right to self-abuse is a lesser freedom than the right to speak our mind, and therefore we can all sleep easier, if more frustratedly, in our beds knowing it has been stopped. No matter that techniques of censorship and control first tested on the paedophile often slip seductively back into the law more generally in order to ‘close loopholes’.

I do not defend the right of people to take, make or circulate pictures of abused children.  Grown-ups owning pictures of other grown-ups doing consensual, if icky, things to other grown-ups should not be banned.  Or ciminalised.

Uneven platforms

If you run to catch a train, and the platform is potholed, you’ll probably fall flat on your face and that is A Bad Thing and you should sue the train company (who’ll probably tell you its not them, Miss). Then you go on a round robin administrative excursion which gets you nowhere and leaves you very frustrated.  Like the rail network, in fact. Only, most folk will agree that uneven platforms are generally A Bad Thing and this is something that, for some odd reason, the press don’t want to talk about. Much. At all.

Unless they really are talking about stations.

(Oh.  Before I go on: thanks to “Another Angry Woman” for her beautiful post on this topic.)

So here’s the nub of this: the point where 21st century reality collides with 18th century sensibility.  Because once upon a time, press and publishing were limited, necessarily, in the sense there weren’t enough trees in the world for every individual under the sun to publish a regular daily bulletin and circulate it to every other.

Only now we can, because there are far more bits of electricity rushing around than trees, which mostly tend to stand still and die slowly.

And I’m not going to pretend I have the answers.  Some of the above I am clear about. Some, I am not.  I don’t know what I think about the use of social networking applications like Twitter to bully, or even when it is bullying.  I’m still listening to the arguments on all sides.

What I do know is that the argument being promoted post-Leveson under the banner of free speech is a very particular, partisan one, which defends to the death the rights of the privileged few — the press barons, the elite columnists, a certain breed of journalist — while not even acknowledging the problems inherent in that world view.  In particular, the pernicious effects of press bullying, and the lack of freedom that attends an exclusionary, monolithic press take on current affairs.

It is argued, economically, that one class having all the money, another having none of it, is freedom.  I do not agree.

It is also argued, environmentally, that it is OK for one group of nations to pollute to their hearts’ content — and bugger what the rest of the world thinks. I do not agree.

Now, it is argued that press freedom is about an elite having the right to express themselves in splendid isolation and beyond the reach of the bullying masses.  Sorry, but that’s another thumbs down from me.  That’s not freedom: that’s privilege and somewhere, somehow, its an issue that needs to be addressed.

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Jane Fae

About Jane Fae

Jane Fae is a writer and activist in the area of sexual rights. She is a regular contributor to a number of national and international publications, including the Register, the Guardian, and Erotic Review. She is also a columnist for Forum magazine. You can find more of Jane’s views on the politics of sex and sexuality at — whilst her personal blog is at .