Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The furore surrounding Owen Jones’s refusal to share a platform with Mother Agnes at a Stop the War Coalition conference demonstrates that many people simply do not know what freedom of speech is. Freedom of speech exists when the government does not reprimand someone for expressing their views. Violence and intimidation, if left unpunished by the state, against speakers may also be considered a violation of free speech.
Freedom of speech must encompass the right to not speak. Coercion underlies both mandated speech and mandated silence. If I am invited to speak at a conference – which may happen one day – then I have the choice to refuse that invitation. I may, like Mr Jones, place conditions on my attendance. If I refuse to share a debating platform with another person, I have not violated their speech freedoms. The show can go on: they can still speak at that platform, if the hosts wish. If I have made a criticisable decision – attending or not attending – then other people should be free to say what they believe about that decision. In either case, that decision has harmed no one’s freedoms.
Similarly, freedom of speech provides no guarantee of a platform. I may want to write wondrous columns for the Spectator, the Guardian or my friend Scarlett Clark’s new online magazine Scriptoeris, but those editors have no obligation to publish my work. I may want to go on the BBC’s Question Time, but the programme makers can choose not to have me there. Newspapers do not publish every scrawled letter or drunken email sent to them, though some of the readers’ articles in the Bath Chronicle make you wonder.
Turning down an invitation to speak does not erode freedom of speech. In fact, being able to choose is part of our expressive freedoms.