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”

Quoted in Heat Street on Social Media Prosecutions

Free speech must always include the right to offend.

The Crown Prosecution Service have updated their guidelines for when someone should be prosecuted for something posted to social media.  I spoke to Kieran Corcoran of Heat Street about how the UK laws governing social media really need to be updated:

Robert Sharp, a spokesman for free speech campaigners English PEN, also commented, telling us: “Free speech must always include the right to offend.

“The law already bans abusive, harassing or threatening messages, which is surely adequate to stop the worst social media trolls.

“The words ‘grossly offensive’ are highly subjective and introduce ambiguity into the the law. This in turn chills free speech.

“Parliament should legislate to remove these words from the Communications Act, just as it removed similar wording from the Public Order Act in 2014.

“Other countries look to the UK on free speech issues – criminalising causing offence sets a poor international example.”

The CPS has tried to head off criticism of its new laws by advising prosecutors to exercise “considerable caution” in their decision-making to avoid “a chilling effect on free speech”.

The Public Order Act amendment I mentioned was a tweak to section 5.  See the Reform Section 5 website for more details.

I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing

The CPS doesn’t keep track of the gender of victims in revenge porn prosecutions. Additional statistics for social media prosecutions are now essential.

Last month, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published a report on Violence Against Women.  It received significant pick-up in the media due to the high number of revenge porn prosecutions that have been brought since a new law was introduced.

I made a Freedom of Information request to the CPS, to ask whether they could tell me how many of the victims in the cases they prosecuted were women. I assumed they would have this information to hand.

I received a reply to my request today. It turns out that they do not keep track of that information Continue reading “I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing”

The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech

The opportunistic words of one writer will mutate, and perhaps cripple, the literature of another.

The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante.  Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1

Anonymity and pseudonymity are often a pre-requisite for freedom of expression.  Whistle-blowers usually need to keep their names away from whatever they have told journalists, lest they lose their jobs or even their liberty.  This is the main reason why English PEN, for whom I work, campaigns so vigorously against draconian surveillance laws and for better protections for those handling journalistic material. Continue reading “The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech”

Discussing Extremism and Free Speech on Sky News

I cannot account for why its taken me until now to blog about this, but last month I was invited onto Sky News to give the English PEN view on extremism, free speech, and the conviction of Anjem Choudhary.

The notorious Islamist preacher had been convicted of supporting terrorism on the basis of Tweets he had posted, pledging allegiance to ‘the’ Caliphate, rather than ‘a’ Caliphate.  The prosecutors argued (successfully, as it turns out) that this constituted support for ISIS. Continue reading “Discussing Extremism and Free Speech on Sky News”

Ban the Burkini Ban

As someone who blogs about freedom of expression I really can’t let the ridiculous burkini controversy in France go by without comment.

Policemen have literally been forcing women to disrobe in public. That is deeply illiberal and wrong.

The arguments for enforcing such a policy do not stand up. Continue reading “Ban the Burkini Ban”

Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

“Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, This Is Wrong”

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech.

Commissioned by and first published on the Free Word Centre blog


In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion and debate on the subject of free speech at universities. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, and the protests over controversial speakers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, have kept the issue in the headlines, and the publication of Sp!ked Magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings seems to have emboldened free speech advocates to push back against campus censorship. A new campaign, Right2Debate, targets the National Union of Students (NUS) and its No Platform policies that prevent controversial speaker events from going ahead.

As a campaigner with English PEN, I support the campaigns to expand free speech at universities. But in recent weeks I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the debate is evolving. Each side talks over the other, and some of the fundamental questions at the heart of the issue remain unresolved. Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech. Continue reading “Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities”

Literary Campaigning at its Best

Solidarity and activism is not the only outcome of this writing—the cultural conversation is being advanced too

During my time working for English PEN I’ve often used the phrase ‘literary campaigning’ to describe our particular style of activism.  Its a term that probably seems self evident: we use literature to draw attention to the situation of writers at risk.  For example, we might read the writing of an imprisoned poet outside an embassy, or stage a world-wide reading at multiple locations around the world.

Its an approach that has value for several reasons.  Not only is it non-violent, but it is also not particularly hostile or antagonistic to those who have imprisoned the writer or who are responsible for their persecution.  So it has a diplomatic quality.

It also a fantastic act of solidarity for the embattled writer.  Where they have been entirely censored through imprisonment (or even death) it is a way to give them a voice and restore to them some sort of expression. Continue reading “Literary Campaigning at its Best”