On 23 February, Oluwole Ilesanmi, a Christian street preacher, was approached by two uniformed police officers outside an underground station in north London. Donned with an earpiece microphone and a bible, Ilesanmi had been proselytizing to people as they passed on the sidewalk. In a video of the exchange, which has since gone viral, one of the officers says that if he doesn’t stop what he’s doing and leave, he’ll be arrested. Ilesanmi quickly declares his intention to continue preaching, and—within seconds—the officer makes good on his promise: he’s stripped of his bible, handcuffed and dragged away. When questioned by a bystander filming the arrest, the officer reportedly said that Ilesanmi was being detained for Islamophobia. This, presumably, was a reference to his attempt, moments earlier, to convert a Muslim.
The arrest and subsequent release of a street preacher for a speech crime is not the only sign there’s something rotten in the state of England. Three weeks later, it was revealed that police had an open investigation into a UK journalist. The journalist in question, Caroline Farrow, is a columnist who writes from a Catholic perspective. Following an appearance on the TV show Good Morning Britain, where she paneled alongside transgender rights lobbyist Susie Green, Farrow took to Twitter to inform the world she was being investigated under the Malicious Communications Act. The transgression? In a series of tweets from October 2018, she’d allegedly misgendered Green’s adult child, who was born male but identifies as female. What is perhaps most disconcerting is the investigation not only constitutes an infringement on free expression, but on a free press. While the term is often overused, the adjective Orwellian comes to mind.
As a Canadian, one aspect of the Farrow case which interested me was that it dovetailed with the issue which sparked Jordan Peterson’s rise to fame. Peterson initially gained national prominence due to his opposition to what he called federal compelled speech legislation. He claimed that Bill C-16, which was introduced by the ruling Liberal Party of Canada, would criminalize precisely what Farrow was investigated for: the refusal to utter gender neutral pronouns or acknowledge an individual’s expressed gender identity, irrespective of their biological sex. It’s hard not to wonder if the insanity witnessed in the Farrow case might soon jump across the pond. Was Peterson the canary in the coal mine after all?
It isn’t as if Canada is a bastion of free speech to begin with. Bill C-16, which codified gender identity and expression into the human rights code, was merely an addendum to the hate speech laws on the books. And, as recent history has shown, the state isn’t afraid to use them. On 24 January, James Sears and LeRoy St. Germaine—the editor-in-chief and publisher, respectively, of the Toronto-based publication Your Ward News—were convicted of inciting hatred against an identifiable group. In the pages of their obscure newspaper, the pair had advocated for the legalization of rape and denied the Holocaust. These were just two of their transgressions against reasonable and intelligent discourse. Sears and St. Germaine are vile and do not deserve to be taken seriously by any thinking person. But Canadian courts took them very seriously indeed. As a result of their convictions, the pair could find themselves behind bars for up to a year.
Peterson himself is once again at the center of censorship and free speech controversies. On 20 March, news broke that Cambridge University has rescinded an offer to grant him a visiting fellowship. The university is free to invite or disinvite whoever it likes. However, the decision was undoubtedly in poor taste. While the administration has denied this, the change of course is almost certainly the result of capitulation to pressure from so-called progressive segments of the student body or outside political agitators. Cambridge gave in to the heckler’s veto.
The following day, it was announced that Whitcoulls, a major New Zealand book distributor, had dropped Peterson’s bestseller from its stores in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack. The justification given was as follows:
(It) is a decision that Whitcoulls has made in light of some extremely disturbing material being circulated prior, during, and after the Christchurch attacks. As a business which takes our responsibilities to our communities very seriously, we believe it would be wrong to support the author at this time.
As a private business, Whitcoulls is free to carry, or not carry, whatever books it chooses—and it appears the company has since backpedaled and begun selling the book again. Nonetheless, its decision to smear Peterson by linking him to the perpetrator of the mass shooting was reprehensible. Incidentally, at the same time it refused to stock 12 Rules for Life, Whitcoulls continued to sell Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the horrors of the twentieth century, but surely one we shouldn’t draw is that the robust protection of free expression is the problem. It’s as if there is a collective amnesia sweeping through society, washing away any recollection of the arguments in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and John Milton’s Areopagitica [the work after which this magazine, Areo, was named—The Ed.].
Even if Ilesanmi, Farrow, Peterson, Sears and St. Germaine were the people their critics say they are (in fact, Sears and St. Germaine are), they should still be allowed to express themselves. Freedom of speech contingent upon the content of one’s views isn’t freedom of speech at all. We should not be licensing viewpoint discrimination. Whether it’s lawful to silence someone is the wrong question: the question is whether it’s justified, whether it’s moral, and whether it will serve us well in the long run.
This is not merely a matter of the speaker’s right to express herself, but also of everyone else’s right to listen. By arresting Ilesanmi, the officers didn’t just infringe upon his right to preach, but also on the rights of others to hear his ideas. By investigating Farrow for hate speech, police put a chill on those who will discuss transgenderism in the future, thereby lowering the likelihood that others will be informed of both sides of the debate. By convicting Sears and St. Germaine, the Canadian government violated my right to decide what views I will be exposed to and engage with. Meanwhile, Cambridge stamped out their students’ and staff’s ability to choose whether to attend Peterson’s lectures, while Whitcoulls denied their shoppers the opportunity to read his book and make up their own minds about it.
These decisions should be an affront to civil libertarians everywhere. When we censor, we render ourselves prisoners of our own ideas and sharpen a blade that can be turned upon us in the future. And if we sit idly by while that blade is sharpened, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when it’s thrust into our flesh. There’s also the question of practicality: who decides what is kosher for us to read and write? The answer, in practice, is either the state or the mob. It is either those with the monopoly on legitimate violence, or the self-appointed moral majority.
The proponents of censorship today mask their intentions behind altruism. It is because of [insert oppressed group here] that we must censor hateful views. This is the same argument that has always been made for censorship. But the best tool the oppressed have always had at their disposal is free speech. In the US, the southern states passed laws making the expression of abolitionist sentiment illegal. Why? Because, as Frederick Douglass noted in 1860, “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech—five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the south.” The abolitionists understood that their greatest enemy was a majority with a license to censor. And the safest way to ensure that no immoral majority engages in the censorship of good speech—as the southern states did during Douglass’s time—is to take away the right of any majority to do so.
While, historically, calls for censorship have been associated with the political right, or with those of a puritanical religious bent, these days the loudest howls for the clamping down on free expression come from the left—just as right-wing populism is sweeping into power in countries around the world. Despite this, many activists—who call populist politicians like Donald Trump or Ontario Premier Doug Ford fascists—are seeking to empower institutions, be they universities or governments, to censor. Have they thought this through?
Part of the problem is that everyone who engages in censorship believes they have right on their side. The participants in the lunacy on the campus of Evergreen State College, and the black-clad hooligans who stormed the gates of UC Berkeley to shut down Milo Yiannopoulos, were both convinced their actions were moral and virtuous. The latter case is particularly instructive. For all their efforts, the regressive left’s attempts to silence Yiannopoulos had the paradoxical effect of raising his profile. What did spell his end? Commitment to free speech on a number of podcasts, including The Joe Rogan Experience, which gave Yiannopoulos enough rope to hang himself. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
The obvious question to pose in the face of censorship is: what are you afraid is going to happen? Did police really believe that Ilesanmi’s attempt to convert a Muslim on a London sidewalk was unbearably hurtful? Or that the child of Susie Green wouldn’t be able to overcome the grief of being misgendered? Did the courts think thousands of Canadians, if exposed to Your Ward News, would begin goose stepping in unison? Is Whitcoulls so certain that reading Peterson’s book will result in the creation of more mass shooters? If that is indeed the case, then all of them think very little of their fellow human beings.
This is not an issue limited to the free speech crisis on certain college and university campuses. It’s much more serious, and pervasive, than that. Across the world, calls for various forms of censorship or the further roll-back of free expression are on the rise. Officials from G7 countries are considering forcing social media companies to purge their platforms of toxic content, while New Zealand’s chief censor (a job title straight out of 1984) has made it a crime to possess or distribute the Christchurch mosque shooter’s manifesto. It is time for all lovers of liberty to stand up and say: There is no one to whom I give the job of deciding what I can read or write or say or hear. That is a responsibility no individual should absolve himself of.
Christopher Hitchens once described his defense of David Irving, a discredited historian and Holocaust denier, as “one of the proudest moments of my life.” At the time, Irving was imprisoned in Austria for what Hitchens correctly called a crime of “thought and writing.” Speaking before a Canadian audience in 2006, Hitchens said:
(Irving’s imprisonment is) a scandal. And I can’t find a seconder, usually, when I propose this, but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this, can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.
What is needed now is a return to a robust defense of free expression, even in its most vile, hateful and objectionable forms. The question of what constitutes hate speech is wholly subjective: it has no fixed definition and therefore any attempt to legislate it must be opposed. That isn’t to say there is no such thing as hateful speech—there obviously is. But, no matter how loathsome it may be, it deserves equal, if not extra, protection. If we wish to take the principles of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism seriously, then we must put our collective foot down and declare: we have no truck with viewpoint discrimination or prior restraint. To steel our nerves in these difficult times—when those who seek to censor and cancel hold the cultural capital—we should draw strength from recent defenders of free speech, such as those who stood for artistic freedom during the Rushdie Affair; the ACLU, when they took a bold stance during the Skokie controversy; and those who reprinted the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the wake of the cowardly attack against the magazine.
We find ourselves today—as Frederick Douglass did in 1860—with a mortifying and disgraceful fact staring us in the face: what we thought was gained years ago is under threat. And, as Douglass so eloquently made clear: the time to boldly assert a right is precisely when that right has been called into question. This is the hill I will die on. Not because I like hateful speech, but because I recognize that, when it comes to censorship, what is gained is outweighed tenfold by what is lost. We have seen where the censorious instinct leads us: history is replete with examples. So I invite you to join me on this hill, lest we all be dragged down to perdition.