Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events

One reason why free speech is so important is that it ensures diversity of voices in our political discussion. When organisations limit media access, they limit that diversity and go against the spirit of free speech.

An odd story unfolded today: Buzzfeed News were disinvited from a Rochdale hustings event after the Labour candidate Simon Danczuk said he would refuse to attend if a BuzzFeed reporter was there. I was asked to comment on behalf of English PEN:

The move to ban BuzzFeed was also criticised by the freedom of expression group English PEN, which said: “One reason why free speech is so important to a democracy is that it ensures diversity of voices and opinion in our political discussion. When organisations limit media access, they limit that diversity and go against the spirit of free speech.” …

Robert Sharp, spokesperson for English PEN, the writers’ organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression, also criticised the decision to ban BuzzFeed News from the event.

“These reports are very worrying”, he said. “Political events should be open to all journalists, not just those who file positive stories about a candidate.

“It is odd that this should be happening during a general election, when the political parties are surely seeking to broadcast their message to as many people as possible.

“Candidates for political office need to reassure voters that they are open to scrutiny. Selectively refusing journalists access to events is not the way to build public trust.

He added: “If a politician thinks they have been unfairly treated by one outlet, then a better response would be to invite a greater range of journalists to cover future events.”

Continue reading “Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events”

A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

Safe spaces need not be antagonistic to free speech – indeed, they can be a catalyst for full freedom of expression

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.

You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.

I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive. Continue reading “A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon

How web developers choose to solve difficult technical problems has huge implications for free speech and democracy

There’s a new social nework on the block: Mastodon.

Or rather, it’s a social media technology. When we funnel all our conversations through the servers of a big company like Facebook or Twitter, we grant them enormous power. They control the extent of our privacy and of our free speech, and that power can be abused in ways that are both legal and not. The companies can sell our data to third parties (a process made much easier by the US Congress last week); they can reveal our data to the security agencies of nefarious regimes; and they can throttle or shut down our free speech if they so desire, without going via a court.

Decentralising the way in which we converse online means we can reclaim some of that power. A few years ago I posted a link to a blog post on Dave Winter’s Scripting News which sets out the practical and political importance of this idea: by spreading out, we’re harder to stop.

Mastodon is an open source project, so anyone can install it on a server and run a Mastodon ‘instance’. The software uses a principle called ‘federation’ to allow users to see messages posted on other instances of the software. So people who signed up on (say) mastodon.social can view and respond to messages posted to octagon.social (which is the version I signed up to with the username @robertsharp).

Problem solved, then? Not really. Continue reading “Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon”

What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?

“It is easy to advocate counter speech when you can engage in it freely and without repercussions”

Using my statement to the Bookseller as a springboard, Ruth Coustick-Deal writes an interesting and challenging piece on counter-speech, and why it doesn’t solve the problem of hate speech in the way that free speech advocates assume.

Certain paragraphs that stood out for me, as particular challenges for free speech advocates.  We need to have answers to these points, and address them in our own responses to controversial speech. Continue reading “What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?”

Swallowed by the Kraken

I usually experience the podcast as disembodied conversation between my ears, but on this occasion I was able to step into that space myself… like someone sucked into his own dreams.

There has been a growth in the popularity of podcasts in recent years—both in the number being produced, and in those listening to them. I think part of the reason for this can be explained by the same psychologies that make sitcoms popular. Recurring characters in shows like Cheers, Friends or Big Bang Theory are your smart, funny friends that visit you every week. It’s a pseudo-social interaction, and I think ‘panel’ podcasts tickle similar synapses.  Continue reading “Swallowed by the Kraken”

Quoted in the Bookseller discussing free speech and the alt.right

I was quoted in The Bookseller today.  The report by Katherine Cowdrey gives all the context.

English PEN has said Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to freedom of expression must be respected, amid the furore surrounding the far-right editor’s lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster US.

“Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored,” said Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for the free speech organisation. He added that demands for S&S US to cancel the deal were tantamount to “censorship”.

“The right of Mr Yiannopoulos to write and to offend is integral to the principle of freedom of expression,” said Sharp. “Likewise, Simon & Schuster US has the right to make an editorial judgment over whether to publish his book. Demanding that the publisher cancels the book deal amounts to a call for censorship, and should be resisted.”

British Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News based in the US, known as a publisher of “alt-right” articles, and was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections. He was banned from Twitter for the racist trolling of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, reportedly received a $250,000 advance from S&S US for his book Dangerous, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It will be published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster US in March 2017, but there are no plans for the UK arm to publish it, The Bookseller reported last week

Sharp emphasised the difference between criticism of the deal and calls for the book deal to be reversed. The latter, he argued, would set a terrible example to authoritarian governments.

“However, we must remember not everyone expressing dismay is asking for the book deal to be reversed,” said Sharp. “Many have simply expressed a negative opinion about Mr Yiannopolous writing and politics. Outrage is not in itself a form of censorship – it is also a manifestation of free speech.

“PEN campaigns for the victims of censorship in many countries around the world. Often, the people we seek to support have been branded as ‘dangerous’ or corrupting to society.  If we seek to silence people like Milo Yiannopolous on the same grounds, then we set a terrible example to more authoritarian governments.

“Anyone angered by this decision should use their own free speech to counter the ideas they disagree with. Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored.”

A few people were dismayed by this statement, saying that English PEN should not be giving me support or succour to the alt.right.  I hope to write more on this in the coming week.

The Corruption of the Victim: Şafak and Koestler on Censorship

When rights are abused, we are all corrupted

Writing in the New Yorker about Turkey, the novelist Elif Şafak begins thus:

The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest at the turn of the last century, became, over the course of his life, intimately familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. It was the corroding effects of such rule on the human soul that preoccupied him as much as the unbridled concentration of power. “If power corrupts,” he wrote, “the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

This is, I think, an under-explored aspect of human rights… or rather, human rights violations.

When one is in the business of defending human rights and free speech in other parts of the world, it’s easy to slip into a simple dichotomy:  The censorious government is bad and corrupt; the dissidents are noble and good.

In reality, things are far more complicated.  Not all activists, journalists and writers have the courage or even the means to fight back. Those outliers who continue to write what they think—and damn the consequences—are few and far between. This makes it easy for the Government to identify them and pick them off.

Most people aren’t that brave and instead find themselves corrupted in some way: As Şafak explains later in her essay, this might be through direct complicity with the regime; silence (a sort of sin of omission); or else a corruption of their literary output as it flees into metaphor and ambiguity.

My interview with Anjan Sundaram about what he saw happen to journalists in Rwanda is relevant to Elif’s analysis: he saw the full spectrum of reactions to authoritarianism, from cringing complicity to outright defiance.

More generally, the corruption of the person and the state that comes when human rights are denied is a crucial argument against any weakening of rights protections.  As we prepare for a battle against a British Prime Minister intent on destroying our hard-won protections against state power, this is one of the arguments we must marshal: when the rights of some are abused, we are all diminished.

How to say this in a way that persuades?

Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’

A good formulation of one of the most powerful reasons to support free speech. I have already appropriated the phrase in my own advocacy.

Last month I was privileged enough to participate in the annual House of Lords Chamber Debate.  It’s the one time during the year when people who are not members of the House of Lords are allowed to sit on its benches and debate.

This year the debate was about free speech and its limits.  I made a short contribution about the practicalities of censorship and surveillance, and said that free speech should be about dialogue and conversation. Continue reading “Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’”

A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations

Free speech advocates need to acknowledge that our approach asks people to lay their identities on the table for dissection. If people balk at that suggestion, our response should not be to call them ‘thin skinned special snowflakes’

This is an edited transcript of my speech to the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations Festival, delivered on 15th November 2016.  This first appeared on the Leeds Beckett University Politics and Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) blog.  You can listen to the unalloyed version of the speech on SoundCloud or via the player below.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies. In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution. Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere. Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue. Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus? Continue reading “A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations”

A Framework for Countering Dangerous Speech

What to do when people engage in incitement and hate speech? This is surely the toughest challenge facing free speech defenders

I’m bookmarking this Washington Post profile of Professor Susan Benesch, whose research looks at ‘dangerous speech’—that is, speech that can incite mass violence.

For Benesch, it’s important that people understand that the type of speech she wants to counter is different from hate speech, which she says is a broad category for which there is no agreed-upon definition. An advocate for free speech, she does not believe that hate speech can or should be silenced. In fact, it’s one of the central reasons she sought to differentiate dangerous speech.

Continue reading “A Framework for Countering Dangerous Speech”