Free speech is indeed under siege on university campuses and across many sections of British civil society today. However, in bending over backwards to advocate for the free speech of dubious figures like Tommy Robinson, we risk subverting the very purpose of such speech; debate, discussion and the creation of new and better ideas. If free speech becomes an abstract good so removed from the foundational ideals of liberal democratic societies, then we risk forfeiting these foundations.
It becomes all too easy to conflate believing that someone has a right to speak with believing in their ideas.
The British government has of course played a prominent role in creating such martyrs like Tommy Robinson, by pushing them to the extreme fringes of civil society and sometimes out of it all together. The banning of alt-right heroine Lauren Southern and similar figures from even having a mere presence on British soil has raised an anger among ordinary Brits that certain elite political figures would like to ignore. This anger coalesces with a religious idolisation of such figures to form a meaningless faith in disruptive speech.
Yes, free speech should be an unequivocal right and as abhorrent as some of Tommy Robinson’s ideas are, British society should be strong enough to debate these under open conditions rather than banning them.
However, in a polarised political environment such as ours, it becomes all too easy to conflate believing that someone has a right to speak with believing in their ideas.
We can and must be capable of more nuance than this. Tommy Robinson has identified some serious grievances that ordinary British people have with elite society and more broadly, cosmopolitanism. However, the path forward that he and his supporters dictate is almost as incompatible with British democracy as the very act of banning his speech.
Instead of turning to figures such as Tommy Robinson, let us look first to the plethora of speakers and academics who don’t have a history of breaking the law, but in fact face serious challenges in speaking freely and openly in today’s society.