The problem with free speech

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 28 February 2020

One wonders what French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire would have made of the Free Speech Union (FSU).

Set up by British journalist Toby Young, the FSU presents itself as a “non-partisan, mass-membership organisation that stands up for the speech rights of its members.”

An organisation to promote free speech – what nobler cause could there be? Especially at a time of cancelled public lectures, political correctness and increasingly elaborate speech codes.

The FSU is also an organisation that counts people I highly respect among its members.

And yet, it is a union I would not join. Because it is founded on a misunderstanding. Which brings me back to Voltaire.

Among his most famous quotes is a passionate defence of free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire captured the essence of what free speech is. It is not primarily your right to say what you like. It is primarily the right of other people to say what you may not want to hear.

This makes a free speech union a contradiction. A union is an organisation which comes out to support its members. Unions do so as a service exclusive to their members. They are like a club or an insurance provider.

The problem with the club-like nature of the FSU is that it is bound to attract like-minded members. Sure, that makes it easy for members to stand up for each other’s speech rights, but it takes little principled courage to stand up for things you believe in anyway.

An organisation better suited in principle to promote free speech might be New Zealand’s Free Speech Coalition. Its purpose is “To defend and promote the rights of New Zealanders to freely seek, receive and impart information.”

By not limiting their support to members, and by having a more diverse membership, the Free Speech Coalition’s campaign for free speech could be more credible.

Ideally, the Coalition’s atheist members should stand up for religious freedom. Its left-leaning members should support conservatives. And all of that in reverse too, please.

I would prefer that kind of organisation to Toby Young’s FSU club.

Still, I am too individualistic to join. But I will defend to the death their right to stand up for my right to free speech. And everybody else’s, too.

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