Head to Head: Free Speech Should Never Be Limited

Guillermo Dillon and Matthew Collins debate the value of total free speech.


For the right to offend: Guillermo Dillon, Contributing Writer

Last week I attended the Phil’s debate on the motion, “This House Believes in the Right to Offend”. The debate was truly depressing. This was not only because those opposing the motion won, but because they saw themselves as heroes leading other students towards a more liberal society, despite the fact that they were going against the core principle of what makes us democratic and liberal: freedom of speech.

But what is freedom of speech in the first place? Should it be regulated? Could the government or the Students’ Union dictate what is right and wrong to say without threatening the core post-enlightenment ideas about individual thinking?

Last week a student wrote an article in the University Times saying, “If the freedom to say and do stupid things that make people uncomfortable is the sacrifice we must make for this, then it’s a freedom we don’t need.” Is that really what we want? To stop listening to uncomfortable ideas? And if it is, how could we make everyone feel comfortable? It is only a matter of reading a bit of history in order to realise that great ideas were originally uncomfortable, even insulting, to many.

Political correctness

Political correctness is becoming the biggest enemy of free speech by encouraging this “comfortable” mentality. Rather than causing minorities to speak, it promotes a culture in which we constantly find ourselves unable to think independently and say what we truly believe because of fear of what other people might feel or say. With political correctness, people start transforming ordinary words into insults, thus creating a divided society without trust, one in which you can no longer say things as you think they are without people feeling you are insulting them.

Those of us who defend freedom of speech are not encouraging a hostile environment in which we celebrate hate speech or racism. Gratuitous insults won’t take us anywhere as a society. If you think about it, true freedom of speech will inevitably challenge some people’s ideas, and some others might feel insulted, but the outcome is always worth it and history proves it. For example, freedom of speech allowed homosexuals to speak for their rights, despite the discomfort of many homophobes and extremists. Freedom of speech helped to abolish slavery, even though many slave owners felt uncomfortable when the issue was being discussed. Freedom of speech helped Martin Luther King to fight racism in America during the civil rights movement. It has always been about encouraging individual thinking, discovering the truth and aiming towards a better and more democratic society. That is what we are fighting for.

But what is it, then, that makes people nowadays unable to listen to different ideas other than their own? Is it because they are afraid to be challenged? If they are so convinced that they are right, then what is the problem? But if they are not sure about their own convictions, would it not be better to listen to ideas that could help you reach better and more truthful answers? As Brendan O’Neill said it in the debate last week, “It is good to be offended … It allows you to work out whether what you believe is right or wrong. It invites you to change your mind where necessary, or to get sharper at articulating your worldview.”

Listen to challenging ideas

It is important to realise that the right “to not feel offended” does not exist. Neither does the right “to not feel uncomfortable”. I don’t care how stupid or insulting your idea may be to me, I would never prohibit you from saying it and nobody should ever deprive you from that right.

The Hist invited Peter Singer a couple of days ago to speak to their members. You have no idea how insulting and stupid his ideas seem to me and to many people around campus. But it would have been far more insulting to me if they had cancelled the event. They would have insulted my freedom, because I could simply decide not to attend the event. And worst of all, they would have insulted me by thinking I could not have been able to handle such ideas. Peter Singer, you are welcome to come to Trinity anytime!

Perhaps it would be worth considering these words from Michael Oakeshott: “Politics, that is, citizens speaking and listening to the utterances of other citizens, is impossible without freedom of speech.”

Without the disposition to listen to challenging ideas and without the right to say them, we are saying farewell to politics and we are saying farewell to western democracy. Let us think harder and let us speak more.

Against: Matthew Collins, Deputy Comment Editor

When someone says: “Free speech should never be limited”, we should be sensitive to the fact that this is a loaded and misleading statement, with the precise aim of illegitimately claiming ground in an overexposed, tedious debate that many of us had hoped would come to a long overdue end. Put simply, we have no reason to believe that speech is free, because to do so assumes the existence of a world in which all people have equal means to express their opinion. The unreality of such a world suggests that when we defend free speech, we are in reality protecting the right of a small and privileged minority to occupy a finite amount of space with often abhorrent views, at everyone else’s expense.

A qualified right

The debate surrounding freedom of expression is a messy one, and the ambiguities associated with such confusion are to the benefit of ardent “free speechers”, who paint those who support a more nuanced system as proponents of a system of censorship. So before I wearily enter the fray, I want to delineate precisely what I mean when I say that speech can and should be limited in a number of instances. I do not mean that the state should arrest people for expressing their understanding of the world. I do not support state censorship of newspapers, magazines or books.

Harmful consequences

I believe instead that universities, magazines and other institutions are legitimate in denying a platform to people whose views we have reason to believe are harmful to others. The counterfactual is allowing any view to be expressed in any space at any time. This seems an unappealing prospect, particularly given strong evidence that the expression of offensive views causes psychological damage to vulnerable people. Many such views encourage hatred of historically marginalised people, which at best results in further animosity towards them, and at worst is directly responsible for increased violence and oppression. It seems prudent, and logical for institutions and publications to not allow unrestricted access to their pulpits. For me, and many others, this is an uncontroversial opinion, consistent with multiple other legitimate restrictions on human action where we have evidence that such action causes harms which outweigh any utility of said action.

Proponents of an unrestricted right to free speech have questioned whether the consequences of facilitating offensive views are really that bad. I would posit that in the vast majority of cases, those who question the damage caused by offensive, discriminatory speech for marginalised groups, are in fact not part of those marginalised groups. When you haven’t experienced bullying, harassment, abuse and violence on the basis of an offensive belief, you are not the person who is best placed to adjudicate whether such ideas should be communicated on a university campus. The people who are in the best position to make that decision are those whose lived experiences have been akin to abject misery because of regressive views. When universities, newspapers and television channels decide to not allow space for these views, they are not coddling us. They aren’t stifling debate. They are responding to the requests of marginalised groups to prevent further hatred being channelled into violence against them.

Freedom of speech is not universal

The free speech champion will reply that unrestricted free speech allows for a marketplace of ideas, whereby the aggrieved minority can use the right of reply to defeat the backwards logic of discrimination employed by their interlocutor and convince the public at large that such views have no merit. However, the reason we don’t live in a system of unfettered, Ayn Rand-esque, free markets is because unrestricted capitalism, much like unrestricted free speech creates an asymmetry which privileges certain people and suppresses others. Islamophobes such as Richard Dawkins are more able to spout their horrific sectarianism than Muslims are able to defend their religion. History has seen wealth and cultural status accumulated by white men, while it is seized from all other groups. The net result of this non-consensual exchange is that society will always listen more to Dawkins than it will to Muslim scholars like Reza Aslan, meaning that Muslims are less able to defend themselves in the arena of unrestricted free speech.

Relatedly, minorities receive less space to express their opposition to discriminatory views than elites, so meaningful debate is rarely a reality. When District Court Judge Mr. Justice Seamus Hughes, calls the Travelling Community “Neanderthal[s]”, it is a fallacy that Irish Travellers have an equal opportunity to respond to such blatant racism. Moreover, every time we allow a rape apologist to speak, it makes it harder for victims of sexual assault to talk about their experience, because the hostility they face for doing so is heightened. It would therefore seem axiomatic that newspapers, television channels and universities should not facilitate such speech when publicly critiquing it is an impossibility. All we get is an increase in bigotry, rather than reasoned discussion.

Challenging one’s worldview

Noted free speech advocate, Brendan O’Neill, has argued that expression without infringement allows us to question whether our views are really correct, and thus strengthens our opinions. I believe that homophobia is abhorrent because the bullying I experienced for being gay was traumatic and made a significant portion of my school-life unbearably miserable. My belief that LGBT*Q+ issues should be incorporated into the education system is based on that lived experience. Listening to politicians such as Fidelma Healy-Eames question whether telling children about the existence of queer people is appropriate doesn’t strengthen my beliefs. Her opinion is simply a theory, devoid of input from the people it actually affects. All that happens when this opinion is expressed is that more people believe homophobic discrimination is legitimate, and as a result people like me are less likely to achieve the legislative changes we know are necessary.

Unlike  noted free speech advocate Brendan O’Neill, I am not worried about people not hearing challenging ideas. The existence of the internet in the postmodern era means that if you want to hear contrarian, reactionary views on misogyny, racism, homophobia or poverty, you can read Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. The problem is that when those views are publicly expressed on university campuses, the people who they affect cannot abstract themselves from that circumstance. A woman cannot abstract herself from a university where Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is played, and is therefore forcibly exposed to the rape culture promoted by that song. Muslim students cannot remove themselves from a campus where anti-Muslim sentiment increases after an Islamophobic discussion is facilitated. If you want to hear offensive views to challenge yourself, please do so in a space where other people aren’t harmed by your desire for self-discovery.

So, to those who bemoan the infringement on their freedom of speech, the message is clear. If we decide that we no longer wish to hear your views, that is a direct result of your qualified right to freedom of expression. Your views have been considered, and deemed oppressive and meritless. The right to say what you think cannot be divorced from the consequence that not all people will agree with you, and therefore not all people will want to spend their limited time listening to your views. This isn’t an infringement on your freedom of expression, but a direct result of how you chose to use that freedom. Deal with it.

Illustration by Sarah Larragy