Against “Free Speech”

Jacob Mchangama concludes that “unless the United States pushes back against the global free speech crisis, the world is likely to become less free, secure, and prosperous.” In my view, the world is likely to, and indeed has, become less free, secure, and prosperous precisely because of the policies, ideologies, and values endorsed and promoted by the very people who insist on fostering the idea that there is a free speech crisis or who use “free speech” as a Trojan horse. Hysterical, unempirical claims about national free speech crises should be viewed as part of a broader propagandistic campaign aimed at reigniting and reconfiguring a culture war; as playing a pivotal role in resurgent right-wing nationalisms, part of an onslaught against a range of oppressed minorities and progressive gains of the last half century. The so-called free speech crisis is a self-serving myth manufactured, or at least capitalized on, not only by racist opportunists such as Geert Wilders or Tommy Robinson, but predominately white, male centrists seeking to preserve a dominant worldview that normalizes and universalizes the values of their gender, race, and class. How else to explain the sorry sight of successful, widely published establishment figures, “privileged, confident voices who have framed every debate since time immemorial,” attempting to paint themselves as beleaguered victims because their ability to indiscriminately offend, bully, exclude, and dominate has been challenged; because, for example, they are no longer able to celebrate the achievements of British colonialism without being criticized for dubious scholarship.

The mythmaking works primarily through the use of the “free speech defense”—invoking free speech as a sacred, universal principle in order to justify and legitimize racist, sexist, Islamophobic, or transphobic claims, and more importantly, to prevent challenges to structural, institutional, normalized racism, sexism, Islamophobia, or transphobia. The free speech defense inverts actual power relations—for example, the people making racist statements assert their victimhood when called out for their racism, decry censorship while denying their critics a voice, and refuse to consider how the conditions or terms of communication are not only biased but structured in their favor. That J.S. Mill is so often called upon to support such a defense is questionable at best. Mill sought to attack existing social arrangements, whereas today’s free speechers seek to defend and preserve them; Mill considered diversity central to social progress, whereas many of his supposed heirs promote fanciful notions of homogeneity; Mill was concerned with the oppressive nature of public opinion; he challenged dogma, stale arguments, and calcified points of view; he challenged custom described as nature, arguing that “the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.”[1] And there are few staler, more customary arguments than those repeatedly trotted out to defend free speech. Above all, Mill recognized the importance of questioning the framing of debate or the conditions of possibility of argument.

It has become almost comically,[2] but also tragically evident that “free speech” is being weaponized to legitimize a range of reactionary, anti-egalitarian, and exclusionary goals—from empowering corporations, increasingly the beneficiaries of First Amendment rights rather than individuals,[3] to emboldening the alt-right and far-right, and to defending a zombie-like liberal center. As Katherine Gelber argues, “Never before has the catch cry of ‘free speech’ been used by so many so often as a catalyst for wider political objectives, many of which have very little to do with free speech at all.”

That the so-called free speech crisis is an ideological myth, that there is a glaring disjuncture between representation and reality, can be seen, for example, when the UK government commission concludes there’s no free speech crisis on campus—“evidence suggests that the narrative that ‘censorious students’ have created a ‘free speech crisis’ in universities has been exaggerated”—and yet the universities minister a few months later insists that the government regulator—the Office for Students (note the Orwellian title[4])—will intervene to police free speech activity on campus; when polls show that millennials in fact support free speech and yet are repeatedly caricatured as fascist snowflakes. We can likewise see the myth unravel when research shows that many supporters of free speech are indeed racist—and we can readily agree that “people who claim to be for ‘free speech’ when defending racist language do not really care about all speech, just the speech which agrees with their point of view.”

If there is a free speech crisis at all, then, it is that free speech has been co-opted to serve anti-democratic ends; has become the rallying point of decidedly unemancipatory political formations, invoked to attack equal rights, social justice, and basic norms of tolerance and inclusion; in this guise it is far removed from the Millian ideal of serving the pursuit of truth, progress, and the improvement of mankind.

There can be little doubt, however, that there is a global crisis of democracy. We should indeed be concerned about global developments of rising authoritarianism, the gutting of democratic values and processes, attacks on civil liberties and the right to protest; about ethno-nationalism and social exclusion; about the building of walls—literal and metaphorical—to shore up mythical and dangerous notions of nationhood; we should be concerned about increased militarization and about heavy-handed, sometimes lethal policing. Just as we should be concerned about the worrying trend in Europe of state hypocrisy and overreach on free speech matters. France, take a bow.

But that the United States, especially in its current plutocratic guise, can have a positive role to play in addressing these issues is doubtful. Here “it might be useful,” as Mchangama says, “to take a brief look at history,” at some of the ways freedom has been mythologized and mobilized for questionable ends.

“How is it,” asked Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from slave-drivers?”[5] Then as now the loudest defenders of free speech were those least likely to grant it to others. It would indeed be useful if there was a more widespread understanding of the origins of the United States as a settler colony and what Aziz Rana calls the “disquieting ideological roots of freedom as self-rule”; of how America’s democratic ideals were produced and sustained by colonial domination—the subjugation, forced removal, or outright murder of those deemed outsiders; and how “settler exclusion provided the basic governing framework for American life for over three centuries.”[6]

It might also be useful if we want some understanding of the causes of this global crisis to consider the havoc wreaked by 50 years of devastating neoliberal ideology and policies, spearheaded and often imposed by the United States, which even the IMF admits have failed, producing gross inequality and economic stagnation. As Wendy Brown argues, it these policies, and above all neoliberal rationality, that have produced the conditions enabling political extremism to enter the mainstream.

Finally, the fact that the abuse of free speech in Europe and the United States needs to be criticized, that, in the UK at least, it is the press that is “corrupt and tyrannical,” does not mean that free speech and political freedom in other parts of the world do not need defending and promoting. It is possible and necessary to do both. The invocation of free speech for spurious ends does nothing to help those fighting for freedom in autocratic countries (not that I accept the distinction Mchangama suggests between autocracies and democracies, but that’s another matter). Such fights are not for abstract principles, but for concrete political change. Nelson Mandela, whom Mchangama cites, had concrete goals. His aim was to end apartheid, and apartheid can be viewed as a more explicitly institutionalized form of the brutalizing inequality, injustice, and lack of freedom suffered by marginalized and persecuted groups in the United States and elsewhere today. These are the people on the receiving end of the hate speech and extremist behavior that the “free speech” racket enables. If you are on the side of Mandela and contemporary freedom fighters, then you need to be against “free speech.”


[1] Mill, J. S., On Liberty and other Writings, Cambridge Universty Press, 1989, p. 70.

[2] Australian ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott argued that the Australian marriage equality survey was actually about free speech, and that the realization of marriage equality would place freedom of speech at risk.

[3] Coates, John C., IV. “Corporate Speech and the First Amendment: History, Data, and Implications.” Constitutional Commentary 30, no. 2 (2015): 223-275.

As Wendy Brown notes “the project of empowering the private against democracy through the discourse of freedom is patently evident in First Amendment jurisprudence in the United States” (76). “The rubric is freedom, the ruse is corporations rendered as persons, and the project is rolling back restrictions and mandates of all kind” (77).

[4] “The line-up [of the board] makes a mockery of the idea that the new body’s purpose is to represent the interests of students: the board includes only one current student and no representatives from the National Union of Students.”…

[5] Cited in Losurdo, Domenico, Liberalism, Verso, 2011, p. 10.

[6] Rana, Aziz The Two Faces of American Freedom, Harvard University Press, 2010, p.10-11.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jacob Mchangama describes what he terms a “cross-fertilization of censorship,” in which regimes both free and unfree are in the process of copying one another’s restrictions on expressive freedoms. More liberal countries still frequently restrict hate speech, while less liberal ones use those restrictions to justify still more restrictive acts. The world’s centuries-long march toward freedom of expression seems to have halted. Can it be restarted?

Response Essays

  • Anthony Leaker characterizes the recent free speech “crisis” as mythical. It is the product of far-right and indeed fascist propaganda, and we can know that this is so by observing the purported victims in the “crisis:” They are right-wing, successful, and absolutely not being persecuted. Indeed, they dictate the terms of present-day debate, exactly as people like them have always done. In this way, Leaker denies that the United States has been, or is, a force for liberty at all. Political speech does well when it liberates the oppressed, but the type of speech under discussion here is nothing of the kind.

  • Is free speech in danger? Jeremy Waldron sounds a skeptical note, and he offers a series of challenging methodological questions regarding how to think about free speech and public policy. Among others, he urges that we pay more attention to the difficult problems of cross-country comparisons and the interaction between law and private social sanction.

  • Jonathan Rauch urges a reconsideration of what social media are: Rather than neutral conduits for the ideas of others, social media platforms should be thought of as publishers in their own right. Everyone in the publishing industry knows the value of an editor, who helps to weed out low-value content. But the law has relatively little to offer the editing process, and politicians today seem increasingly determined to erode not only free speech norms, but other norms of democracy as well.