Conservatives are the only people who believe in free speech nowadays. At any rate, that’s what many conservatives seem to think. Witness the wearying succession of anti-leftist think-pieces about how progressives have turned into authoritarian censors. Or notice the meteoric rise (and fall) of Parler, a social media site touting itself as a free-speech-friendly rival to censorious Silicon Valley tech giants. Or see the many comedians who, while mostly sharing the progressive sensibilities of coastal elites, bemoan the chilling of free speech at universities. Today, if you care about free speech and you’re looking for staunch allies, they’re more likely to be found in conservative circles.

In the UK this notion is becoming a prominent part of the Conservative Party’s self-image. The 2019 Tory manifesto promised to scrap section 40 of the Crime and Courts act, in the name of press freedom. It also called for strengthening free speech in universities. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has since pushed ahead with the latter, with a recent memo pledging to force university leaders to commit to free speech on campus. In this piece Williamson says “higher education gives the chance to hear a variety of beliefs and philosophies”; that this is “one of the best ways to encourage a respect for diversity and cultivate an open and inquiring mind”, and that the principle of free speech means “that everyone should be free to have their say”. Williamson sees free speech as an ideal that’s been betrayed by regressive leftists, and whose only hope for survival lies with its conservative champions. And a similar mindset is found in the editorial tone of conservative media outlets. For example, at Conservative Home, a major conservative blogging site, dozens of articles can be found banging the “thank goodness we’re here to protect free speech” drum.

The problem with this narrative is that precious few UK conservatives evince any commitment to free speech, outside of cases in which it aligns with their political goals. And to support free speech only in such cases is not to support it at all. The true test of a commitment to free speech is in how you apply it to speech that offends against your own values, or which contests your political programme, or which your corporate sponsors disapprove of. And the Tories’ self-appointed free-speech-champions have been failing this test with flying colours. To take just a few examples

  • Charities and NGOs have been threatened with defunding if they fail to pull their punches in criticising Tory ministers or policy
  • The Tories have demonstrated their commitment to freedom of political protest – a cornerstone of a free speech culture – by pressuring the courts to prosecute Extinction Rebellion protestors over minor public order offenses at an unprecedented scale
  • They’ve also displayed their commitment to a free press by boycotting media outlets that dare to hold their feet to the fire over mismanagement of the pandemic crisis
  • Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate for the 2021 London Mayoral election, has signalled his support for freedom of artistic expression by lobbying for the suppression of drill music, based on (patently dubious) claims that it exacerbates violent crime among urban young people
  • Perhaps most inspiring of all, for those with liberal convictions, Williamson has made good on his bid to strengthen free speech in universities by threatening universities with sanctions unless they adopt a definition of anti-Semitic speech that deliberately blurs the boundaries between hate speech and legitimate criticism of Israel’s military policy

With friends like these, free speech in the UK hardly needs enemies. Indeed, if it weren’t such a demoralising omen for the UK’s political culture, the level of doublethink and double-standards on display would be farcically amusing. (Surely someone in Whitehall noticed the irony of issuing a de facto gag order to school leaders, banning schools from using “extremist” materials in their teaching (“Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters”), while in the same document identifying “opposition to the right of freedom of speech” as an example of the kind of extreme stance that places an organisation beyond the educational pale. This memo effectively forbids sharing ideas put forward by any opponents of free speech, thereby embodying the kind of anti-free speech ethos that would presumptively disqualify the very same memo from being used as resource by schools. As a philosopher I’m grateful for this example of a self-abnegating prescription, which sits in a peculiar spot in the pantheon of paradoxes, somewhere between a performative contradiction and a variant of the Liar Paradox. Paradoxes aside, though, I worry about what kind of miseries await this country if this Kafkaesque hybrid of authoritarianism and libertarianism is allowed to fester.)

Saying you’re in favour of free speech, while at the same time jumping at opportunities to censor and repress the speech that you disapprove of, isn’t a new trick. Two of the most influential books in the American free speech culture wars of the 1990s – by Stanley Fish and Nat Hentoff, coming from very different intellectual and political starting points – were premised on the claim that both sides of (American) politics are similarly guilty of this.

Of course free speech hypocrisy needs to be criticised wherever it appears, however much it feels like Groundhog Day doing so. The more distinctive and more pressing question for our political moment, though, is how progressive minded people should think about free speech in a political culture where conservative culture warriors have forcefully – but disingenuously – positioned themselves as the defenders and custodians of this ideal.

The jaded response would be to see free speech as an ideal that’s beyond redemption. That many progressives – young progressives in particular – are deeply jaded about free speech is impossible to ignore. One recent manifestation of this, which is admittedly flippant, but at the same time telling in its flippancy, is the use of “freeze peach” on social media as an ironic near-homophone intended to mock conservatives constantly crying free speech. The forceful backlash to broad church concerns about cancel culture betrayed a similar sort of jadedness. And for some time now, progressives have been noticing and calling out the weaponisation of free speech. As I have argued elsewhere, this is a rhetorical tactic which in principle implies some kind of allegiance to the bona fide (non-weaponized) ideal of free speech, but which in practice fosters mistrust and disenchantment in that ideal.

The jadedness is understandable. Twitter and YouTube currently doing their best to avoid facilitating Trump’s incitement of antidemocratic terrorist acts in America. Classical liberal views of free speech have always permitted restrictions on free speech in cases where speech functions as an incitement to criminal violence (see J. S. Mill’s famous corn dealer example). And yet an alarming number of people seem to believe that this constitutes an unjustifiable infringement of free speech. It’s hard to fault anyone for being jaded about free speech while watching these sorts of episodes play out.

But it bears remembering that there is another interpretative response available, for progressives seeking to understand and contest the conservative push to assume ideological ownership of free speech. Progressives can, if they choose, set out to reclaim free speech as a properly progressive ideal. The cost of this is that it will require a rethink on – or at any rate, a more nuanced thinking through of – some of the repressive and censorious tendencies that have been normalised on the activist left in recent years. These tendencies are, after all, part of what instigated the ideological recalibration that allowed conservatives to style themselves as free speech’s champions.

The benefit of reclaiming free speech, though, is that it gives a progressive politics something that it genuinely needs in order to work towards its political goals. Progressives want to transform existing power structures, and challenge the status quo in a way that moves us towards a better and more just society. There is no effective way to do this that doesn’t involve things like disruptive protest, hard-bitten critique of the government, and horizon-expanding work in entertainment, the arts, and academia. In short, progressive politics needs a protected capacity to speak truth to power in the face of hostile resistance. Conservatives have seized a moment in styling themselves as free speech’s champions, only to disqualify themselves from the office in their irrepressible urge to silence their opponents. In the wake of this progressives shouldn’t abandon free speech as an ideal. We should take it back.

I’m an Associate Professor in Philosophy at University College London; before coming to London in 2018 I was a Lecturer in Philosophy at Monash University (2013-17), and a Visiting Assistant Professor in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago (2015). My interests mainly lie in social and political philosophy, with a particular focus on free speech and the philosophical (moral, epistemological) foundations of liberalism.