In Defence of Liberty

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On Free Speech and ‘Rhodes Must Fall’


Freedom of speech is often cited in Britain, occasionally wrongly. (Edited: Wikimedia Commons)

In Britain, freedom of speech is typically regarded as the highest principle. This pinnacle means that freedom of speech is often cited in erroneous ways, or where it is not relevant.

“Promotes their own interests”

One such example would be Siobhan Fenton’s recent article in The Independent [1], on the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, and in response to Harry Mount in The Telegraph [2]. Ms Fenton wrote:

For students of colour to question monuments of white supremacists on their university campuses is entirely healthy and evidence of the free speech and debate of difficult issues which the right proclaims to be advocates of. Yet, the right’s blustering, bitter response in the form of relentless and defensive denial shows how they’re only for free speech when it promotes their own interests.

It is true that some people will only recognise freedoms of speech and expression when it suits their political interests, in that exact moment. It is also the case that Cecil Rhodes’ role as a colonialist businessman and politician, and whether his monuments cast a shadow of racism over university campuses, represent healthy areas for debate.

Ms Fenton appears to misunderstand what freedom of speech is. Freedom of speech means that speaking or publishing an opinion should not induce criminal prosecution or violent retribution. It is the freedom of speak, the freedom to hear and the freedom to change beliefs. Freedom of speech is neither the guarantee of a platform, a shield from criticism, nor an escape from social consequence.

Mr Mount’s article was dismissive towards the concerns of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, labelling them “student emperors” and “little, tinpot dictators” who were “frozen in a permanent state of supersensitivity”, nursing their “offended egos”. Being dismissive of political opponents is unhelpful towards a genuine debate, but is prevalent in political discourse, nonetheless.

To speak, to hear, to change your mind

What is missing from Mr Mount’s article is a threat to those expressive freedoms. Mr Mount suggests no negative consequence to proponents of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, beyond the failure of that campaign.
In that regard, Ms Fenton’s article is nonsensical. It is a confusion between a scornful attitude towards opponents and desiring legal repercussions or violent responses for propagating an opinon.

Ultimately, the freedoms of speech and expression should not imply support for either side of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ debate. It is merely the guarantee that such debates can occur.


[1] Fenton, S., 2016. The real enemies of free speech aren’t the #RhodesMustFall campaign – they’re the privileged students who oppose them. Independent. Available from: [Accessed: 8th January 2016]

[2] Mount, H., 2015. It’s time to say No to our pampered student emperors. Telegraph. Available from: [Accessed: 8th January 2016]


One comment on “On Free Speech and ‘Rhodes Must Fall’

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This entry was posted on January 9, 2016 by in National Politics and tagged , , , , .
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