In debates about reproductive rights, a crucial concept is over ‘when life begins’ and when a complex collection of human cells starts to have a moral claim. Some people say this must be the ‘moment of conception’. Others talk about ‘viability’, when certain senses come online; or they talk about the moment of birth.
For a long time now, I have been meaning to write a post about the ‘free speech moment’, after which we have a moral duty to defend the right to freedom of expression, even if we find the speaker or their statements odious. During a free speech controversy, asking oneself when that moment might be is a useful exercise, which helps to clarify what one thinks.
The Free Speech Moment I refer to might be the point of publication. Or in other contexts: The clicking on the ‘tweet’ button; The curtain up; the the exhibition opening; The opening notes of the first song; the speaker clearing their throat.
Alternatively, the Moment might also be the point of commission; the announcement of the new season of plays; the curatorial decisions; the booking of the venue; or the invitation.
But it could also be when a piece of text or speech is shared… especially if that act of sharing puts the original speech in a new context, or strips it of the original context.
Whether we are before or after the Free Speech Moment is crucial to how we treat complaints about the speech. If someone suggests that an offensive political figure speak at a conference, but the conference curator puts a kibosh on the idea, we do not (or should not) describe this as ‘censorship’. It’s just good judgment.
However, if that same speaker was invited, but then disinvited following protests, I think we should describe that as a form of ‘censorship’ and certainly against the spirit of free speech.
If a play is rehearsed and ready for performance, but then the creative director who commissioned it decides to cancel the performances, is that an act of curation or an act of censorship? (See: Homegrown, Rita Sue and Bob Too, Pah-la)
Is depends on why. Is it because some new information has come to light, which changes the curatorial calculus? Or is it because of some kind of external pressure? Because the venue cannot guarantee the safety of the speakers? Or because the plumbing is not working?
Whatever the reason: after the Free Speech Moment, there is a greater moral obligation on those doing the cancelling to explain and justify why. Cancellations before the Free Speech Moment can be due to whims, taste or just the feeling in one’s waters. But after the Moment, the demands and principles of free speech say that something more fundamental is required.
The Claudia Jones Lecture
As it happens, one such furore is brewing over the past couple of weeks: Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the editor of The Canary, was invited by the National Union of Journalists to give the prestigious Claudia Jones Lecture, as part of Black History Month. It was due to take place at the Guardian offices in London.
Mendoza is controversial and has been accused of publishing irresponsible inaccuracies. So for many (shall we say) ‘mainstream’ journalists, the NUJ Black Members Council decision to invite to Mendoza was an anathema. They were very angry.
Now it seems that the lecture has been cancelled. How might we consider this controversy with my Free Speech Moment framework, above?
Well: before the invitation to Ms Mendoza, one might have simply advised the NUJ Black Members Council not to approach her. The council either received no such advice, or else ignored that counsel, and she was invited.
I would say that clearly, the ‘Free Speech Moment’ was when the invitation was extended to Ms Mendoza, and she accepted. Withdrawing the invitation is therefore, to my mind, a prima facie suppression of speech. Its not formal state ‘censorship’ (Kerry can still give the speech elsewhere) but this is still No Platforming. Cancelling the speech at the Guardian says nothing other than “we no longer wish to hear from this person.” A rejection of isegoria, the diversity of views.
The question, then, is whether such suppression might be justified.
Since the announcement of the lecture and the outpouring of dismay, new events have come to light that forced the NUJ to rethink. An article published by The Canary on 28th September, written by reporter Max Blumenthal, critiqued the reporting in Nicaragua of the journalist Carl David Goette-Luciak. The article called into question Goette-Luciak’s objectivity and essentially branded him a stooge for the opposition. Following this, Goette-Luciak was ‘doxxed’ and then deported.
When this came to light, the NUJ reversed its decision and the Black Members Council has been asked to host the event somewhere else.
As I type this, it is unclear whether the event will be going ahead at all.
Working out what to think about this therefore depends on your answers to a couple of questions. Opinions will diverge over:
- Whether Blumenthal’s article was a partisan hit job on a fellow writer, or something in the public interest
- Whether publishing the Blumental piece was genuinely beyond the pale for the NUJ, or whether the outrage was a convenient excuse to reverse an embarassing decision make by a sub-committee of its members.
Annoyingly, the answer to both questions can be ‘both’! Its possible for Blumenthal to have been writing in the public interest, and also serve his own partisan political ends. And its possible that the NUJ can be rightly outraged by what has happened to Goette-Luciak while also experiencing relief that they now have a good excuse to avoid hosting Kerry-Anne Mendoza at the Guardian.
My view? I think that there are ways to critique another journalist and their motives without exposing that journalist to danger. And I take a dim view of writer-on-writer exposes. So Blumenthal’s piece in The Canary looks like irresponsible journalism to me.
But I also wonder whether ‘irresponsible’ and ‘partisan’ journalism is really the standard by which we should shun radical editors. Paul Dacre, the unquestionably partisan former editor of the Daily Mail, who published plenty of irresponsibly divisive stories in his time, is giving the keynote lecture at the Society of Editors annual conference next month. Everyone seems fine with that, including me.
I suppose the two cases are not quite equivalent, and I can see why the NUJ (like PEN) takes a particular stand against articles that cause death threats to be made against journalists. But others—especially those who share Ms Mendoza’s political views—will not be swayed by that distinction. To them, a left-wing woman of colour is being held to different, higher standards than a right-wing white man, and has been successfuly silenced as a result.
Personally, I would have preferred the speech to have gone ahead as planned. Why not consider the Claudia Jones lecture an opportunity to express distain, discuss or dismay at what The Canary publishes? Why not use Mendoza’s speech as the perfect spring-board to make the distinction between genuinely independent media and a ‘mouthpiece-in-waiting‘? The event would presumably have some sort of Q&A element. Is that not the perfect time to ask Ms Mendoza to justify some of her editorial decisions?
And on the off-chance that she, perhaps, has good answers to those questions… wouldn’t members of the NUJ and Guardian journalists want to hear them?