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Number 937, August 27, 2017

“We’re all free men, protected by the Constitution”

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Freedom of Speech: A Brief Defence
by Sean Gabb

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Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Every age we have so far known has been one of censorship. This is not to say that opinion has been equally constrained in all times and places. Sometimes, as in the Soviet Union, it has been oppressive and omnipresent—even extending to an imposition of orthodoxy on the natural sciences. More often, it has been focussed on perceived criticisms of the established political and religious order. Sometimes, dissent has been permitted among the intellectual classes—especially when expressed in a language unknown to the people at large, and only punished when communicated to the people at large. Sometimes, a diversity of political orders has limited any particular censorship to an area of just a few square hundreds of miles. Sometimes it has been limited by a general belief in the right of free expression. But I can think of no time or place where publication has been absolutely unconstrained.

If I look at modern England, I cannot say that censorship is as oppressive and omnipresent as it was in the Soviet Union. I cannot think of any opinion that cannot somehow be expressed. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not wish to do any of these things. However, if I want to deny the holocaust, I can. If I want to argue for sex with children, I can. If I want to claim that the coloured races are intellectually or morally inferior, I can. If I want to say that homosexuality is a dreadful sin that will be punished by everlasting torments, I can. The law punishes what are regarded as inflammatory expressions of such belief. It punishes expressions of such belief when they are regarded as affecting known individuals. But I am not aware of a law that makes it a crime to publish sober and abstract expressions of any opinion.

This being said, the law, during the present century, has been stretched to the point where expressing disapproved opinions in everyday life has become dangerous. Statements that do not involve threats against known individuals are being punishes as if they were threats. There is also the fact of what is called social pricing. It may be legal to publish any of the above opinions. But anyone who does publish them will find it hard to secure employment in the state or corporate sector. And, even when there is no censorship, there is a continual propaganda in one direction by the State and its associated institutions. I think here of the various evolutionary hypotheses. For myself, I find it hard to see how any impartial objection can be raised to the claim that the living world as we know it developed by some process of natural selection. At the same time, I am disturbed by the propagandistic tone of the relevant documentaries, and by the misrepresentation of the objections. Or there is the biassed or even lying nature of any establishment utterance on climate change.

We do not have, in England, anything approaching a regular censorship. Even so, speech is less free than it used to be, and far less free than it ought to be. Let me, then, give a brief argument for greater freedom of speech than we enjoy. This covers both direct action by the authorities and many kinds of social pricing.

I am a libertarian. I believe that people should, at the minimum, be free to say whatever they please about alleged matters of public fact. I am sceptical about the justice of the laws covering libel and confidentiality and copyright and official secrecy. But, so long as these are confined to achieving their traditionally stated ends, I will, for present purposes, leave them to one side. I will also leave aside photographic displays of sexual activity not limited to consenting adults. Yet, even at its minimal definition, the right to freedom of speech covers many of the classes of utterance that the British Government wishes to see driven from the Internet.

I turn to the Government’s war on “hate speech.” The term is designed to bring into mind ideas of inarticulate screams, or of simple orders to kill or to hurt. In fact, once we exclude direct, personal threats of the kind that have always been covered by the common law of assault, every act of “hate speech” I have seen punished by law or by social pricing has involved the same combination of propositions and inferences I see anywhere else.

Let us, for example, take these two statements:

  1. Bearing in mind differences of population and wealth, the Great War was less destructive to England than the civil wars of the seventeenth century. Proportionately, fewer men were killed, and the economic costs were lower. Yet the physical effects of the Civil Wars drop out of view after 1660, and those of the Great War were a national obsession until 1939, and are now widely seen as the greatest single cause of our national decline. Therefore, anyone who accepts the consensus view of the Great War as a catastrophe is mistaking symptoms for causes. Whether or not going to war was an error, a fundamentally healthy nation could have shaken off the losses of the Somme and Passchendaele in a decade at most. That we did not indicates that there was already something wrong with us by 1914.

  2. There are measurable differences between racial groups. Some of these are of intellectual capacity. Others are of propensity to crimes against life or property or both. Even otherwise, there are differences of outlook that show themselves in how the members of one group relate to each other and to members of other groups. These differences have been uncovered and confirmed by more than a century of research. They have also long been accepted as matters of common sense. Therefore, racially homogenous countries are well advised to keep out immigrants of other races. Where a country is already mixed, it makes sense to segregate each racial group so far as possible, and to govern each by different laws, or to apply the same laws with different effect to each group.

I give no opinion on the truth of these cases. The first is one side of a current academic debate. The second I have distilled from my reading of various nationalist blogs and journals. Whether either is true is beside my present point. My point is that each case begins with factual claims, from which inferences are then drawn. If you disagree with either, it seems obvious to me that the proper mode of disagreement is to show that the factual claims are untrue, or that the inferences are not validly drawn. Calling in the police, or getting someone sacked from his job, is at best unlikely to advance our understanding of the world.

It may be argued that the first case, if accepted, will have no obvious effects on what is done in the present, but that the second, if accepted, will lead to ethnic cleansing or apartheid. It may then be inferred that laws or other prohibitions against advancing the second case are needed to stop a great evil from being committed.

I agree that, if we accept the racial nationalist case, difficult questions come onto the agenda. In the same way, however, if my gold crowns wear out this year, I shall not be able to afford a family holiday. The unpleasantness of the apodosis has no bearing on the truth of the protasis. Suppose the racial nationalists are right. Suppose that what they advocate is the lesser of evils in the long term. Or suppose that they are right in their factual claims, but that there are alternative and less alarming inferences to be drawn from these. This would surely be worth knowing. Or let us suppose that the claims are wholly without merit. In this instance, a refutation gives us a better understanding of the truth. I do not know, for example, how to prove that the world is round. It might advance my understanding of the truth to see an open debate between a flat-earther and a physicist.

I say generally that, once a case has been stated with any show of evidence, and certainly once it has gained any body of support, it needs to be contested in open debate, not silenced by or on behalf of the State.

Furthermore, where written arguments are concerned, readers are generally alone and have ample time to think before taking action. This must be considered a new intervening cause in any course that leads from the communication of ideas to actual violence. If the opponents of “hate speech” only wanted laws against street agitators, they might have a case. Censoring the written word, however intemperate it may be, is plain suppression of debate.

The natural result of laws against “hate speech,” or of heavy social pricing, is to shut down debate on every claim that legitimises the present order of things. It would at least constrain dissent on the nature and extent of climate change, or on what is happening in the Middle East, or on how dangerous drinking and smoking are to health.

Indeed, we seem to be at the beginning of a change in the consensus on diet and health. For about forty years, we have been told that fat is bad for us, and that we should eat a lot of carbohydrate. It may be that we are about to be told that fat is good for us, and that sugar is the main cause of obesity and diabetes. Had Dr Atkins and others like him been accused of “hate speech,” this potentially valuable debate would have been flattened by claims of “social danger.”

Let us, therefore, have greater legal protection of speech than it presently enjoys in England. Let us have some equivalent of the American First Amendment. Let us also have greater tolerance, where the law does not enter, of dissenting opinion. If someone want to argue in the abstract for the achievement by violence of an Islamic caliphate, let him do so, without being sent to prison or losing his job. If someone wants to argue for the expulsion of Moslems from England, let him do so with the same legal and personal security. Truth is a value that always emerges from open debate, and at best by accident from the unquestionable pronouncements of those in authority.


Sean Gabb’s book, Freedom of Speech in England: Its Present State and Likely Prospects, is available on Amazon.


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Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia. Under the name Richard Blake, he has written eight historical novels for Hodder & Stoughton. These have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Chinese and Indonesian. They have been praised by both The Daily Telegraph and The Morning Star. He has produced three further historical novels for Endeavour Press, and has written two horror novels for Caffeine Nights. Under his own name, he has written four novels. His other books are mainly about culture and politics. He also teaches, mostly at university level, though sometimes in schools and sixth form colleges. His first degree was in History. His PhD is in English History. From 2006 to 2017 he was Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is currently an Honorary Vice-President of the Ludwig von Mises Centre UK, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.

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