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Free Speech Champions: A New Generation


Bradley Strotton

The sphere of free discussion forms the moral, social and intellectual bedrock of our democracy. In today’s climate, however, free speech has become rather misunderstood. It is under an array of challenges, such as the desire and move to restrict speech from activists, legislation, and several of our cultural institutions. I must say that, even as a free speech champion, I am sympathetic towards the impulse to inhibit speech: as the impulse is generally one of protection and inclusion. These are noble virtues indeed. Nonetheless, the impulse to restrict speech fails to grasp at the core of just what free speech is. And no wonder. It is a highly counter-intuitive idea that, on a basic level of analysis, enables people to express unsavoury opinions without fear of censorship. Yet, as a principle, freedom of speech is also responsible for the freedom of the press to criticize the government and to comment unreservedly on social issues; it is necessary for the free publication of the arts which contribute to our shared understanding of culture and humanity. Free speech should be a virtue shared, and celebrated, by all in a liberal society; not an idea that divides down political lines. In the words of Nick Cave, free speech grants the spirit of enquiry the confidence to roam freely, to make mistakes, to self-correct, to be bold, to dare to doubt and in the process to chance upon new and more advanced ideas.


Today, however, censorship is a symptom of a society wrestling with the paradox of tolerance and intolerance. In advancing in our ideas of what a progressive society should look like, we become contemptuous towards ideas that we find unpalatable. Nonetheless, a truly just and tolerant society must find a way to tolerate the intolerable. This is because our freedom necessarily comes at a price. In securing the freedom of yourself and others, you may find yourself exposed to ideas that straddle the boundaries of what is widely regarded as socially or morally acceptable. This will test your resolve and your ability to confront the reality of the scope and depths of our humanity. But free speech also enables us to negotiate the complex realities of our humanity as equals - with the recognition that each of us, each human being, holds a piece of the key that unlocks the bigger picture. 


Free speech is the mechanism underpinning society which enables bad ideas, and tyrannous governments, to be challenged and reformed. Free speech has always been the friend of social progress; not the enemy. It was an ideal central to all of liberal movements of the last century: it was necessary to realise the success of women’s suffrage, the gay rights, and civil rights movements, respectively.


Such a beautiful, and powerful, value is hard won and easily destroyed. That is why we, at the Free Speech Champions, are standing up, together and individually, to re-articulate free speech not as a crass vindication of unsavoury thought, but as that which enables us the space to dare to explore freely, progress without inhibition, and criticise where necessary - free speech affords us with a capacious domain of enquiry directed toward a common good.  Censorship, on the other hand, renders our cultural sphere hostile, unforgiving, and inflexible. Furthermore, censorship conduces nothing to the end for which it was framed. Shunned into silence, bad ideas, rather than becoming reformed, are confined to the solace of their own affirmation. 


The Free Speech Champions project is a collaborative endeavour of young people, supported by the Battle of Ideas charity and the Free Speech Union, to realise the virtue of free speech, to reconnect with it, and to reimagine our public domain as one of open enquiry, and tolerance towards free expression. We are fighting for a society that has a mature way of looking at speech. We need to understand that certain types of speech can be hurtful, upsetting and alarming. Nevertheless, we must allow people the space to express themselves if we believe in a free democracy; free speech is a necessary condition of our freedom. Through discussion, courageous curiosity, and a tolerance towards beliefs we find intolerable, we are able to push the cultural conversation, and civilization, forward.

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