Matthew d’Ancona, writing in the UK’s liberal broadsheet newspaper, The Guardian, argues that attempts to restrict freedom of expression are both counterproductive and wrong in principle.
Talk about an own goal. It should be crashingly obvious to all but the most tenacious squatters on the moral high ground that, far from silencing Yiannopoulos, such actions turbo-charge his fame. In November he was stopped at the eleventh hour from speaking at the Simon Langton grammar school for boys in Canterbury. The Chicago Review of Books has announced a year-long boycott of Simon & Schuster titles in defiance of the publisher’s book deal with Yiannopoulos.
Not since the Sex Pistols were banned from venues across the land has prohibition been so counterproductive.
The inconvenience suffered by Yiannopoulos and his audience last week will soon be forgotten. But the principles at stake should not be. The boundary that separates free speech from prohibited expression will always be mutable. What matters is where the presumption lies; and in a decent society, the default impulse should always be to defend such freedoms. One need only observe Trump’s incremental withdrawal of rights – the migration ban, the threats to the press – to see how perilous it is to take them for granted.
You may well despise Yiannopoulos. But the right to free speech is meaningless unless it is extended to those with whom one profoundly disagrees. Those who argue otherwise are simply doing the far right’s work for them.
No civilised society supports absolute freedom of speech: as the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes argued in 1919: “The most stringent protection … would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre, and causing a panic.” Instead there is a fluid, rancorous, necessarily insoluble argument in every democratic system about where the border should lie.