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Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in Debate, In the news, Philosophy | 12 comments


Following on from my previous post, I want to make sure that my serious reservations about the removal of Julie Burchill’s nasty-minded Comment-is-Free piece do not relate to any concerns about freedom of speech or censorship. I am more worried that a teachable moment is spoiled to an extent, and the record made slightly more complicated than necessary, if the post cannot be found easily and in its original place. Since the article has been republished elsewhere, that concern is slightly obviated, but I’d still prefer the article to remain where it originally was and for all the comments on it not to be lost, as has happened.

I’m not seeing this as a free speech issue, as I see free speech as about suppression of speech by the state. It does not mean that you get to find a publisher who wants your material. If Burchill’s piece had been rejected in the first place, I don’t think there could be any complaint. Indeed, given that the piece is little more than a litany of expressions of hatred and contempt directed at man-to-woman transgender people, it is hard to see how it had enough intellectual merit to deserve publication by a major newspaper site in the first place. Admittedly, Burchill writes with a certain vigour – I am not claiming, at all, that she is talentless. But that does not mean that this particular piece deserved publication.

So, if a newspaper decides not to accept a piece that has been submitted for publication that is not a freedom of speech issue. Nothing stopped Burchill from publishing it elsewhere (which she has done), even if she’d needed to set a new blog to do so. Nor do I see this as censorship in any interesting sense. It is not state censorship, preventing certain views and expressions of them being published within a legal jurisdiction. If a newspaper does not wish to publish certain views, perhaps, as in this instance, extreme and hateful ones, that is its prerogative as far as I’m concerned. We can call it “censorship”, but that means relatively little in a circumstance where getting published in a particular place is a privilege rather than a right. No one has a right to have an article accepted for publication by a newspaper, at least not unless some sort of promise were first made to them, and even then, newspapers can surely reject pieces that breach whatever guidelines are in force.

The upshot is that I’m not going to be going around worrying that Burchill has been censored or denied freedom of speech, just because her article is no longer available at Comment is Free.

I do want to add a caveat. First, the body that we should most fear if it is in a censoring mood is the state – it has the power to ban disliked kinds of speech across whole territories or even beyond, and it can back this up with criminal and civil offences, and with mechanisms for civil law suits. It is not like a particular publisher being uninterested in what you write, which leaves you with the options of looking for another publisher… or else publishing it yourself in one or more of the various ways that are available.

But here’s the caveat. In the twenty-first century, it is not just the state that we have to fear. In a world where so much expression is online, and so much of that depends on a relatively small number of platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and popular blogging platforms such as Blogger and Formspring), I think we do need to look at some of the very large players much as we look at the state, i.e. as centres of power that can exert great control over what is communicated. Accordingly, I favour very broad parameters for speech at these sites. E.g., Facebook has crazy rules about nudity that even prevent others from posting happy photos of themselves breastfeeding their babies. That is a form of private censorship worth protesting about.

These are, however, platforms that we all have some legitimate expectation of being able to be use to express ourselves. By contrast, no one has a legitimate expectation that freelance material they submit for professional publication will be accepted. Likewise, I have no compunction about deleting comments or banning commenters here – I hope it won’t happen often, but I am looking for civil discussion and will not look kindly on people who don’t appear to want this. Anyone who wants to make uncivil comments about whatever issue is being talked about here, from time to time, is free to go vent elsewhere. I am not government – I am not even Facebook or Twitter. I can’t and won’t prevent you from publishing whatever you like elsewhere.

There may be other caveats that should be added. In this information age, many rules probably need to change to be fairer to all comers wanting to express themselves online, and it’s worth having a conversation about this. But I don’t see any reason to change the rule, if that’s the right word, that there is no legitimate expectation of being published at a place like Comment is Free. Again, that is a privilege to be grateful for, not a right to be defended.




  • “Likewise, I have no compunction about deleting comments or banning commenters here – I hope it won’t happen often, but I am looking for civil discussion and will not look kindly on people who don’t appear to want this.”

    Amen to that. Authors in online spaces in general need to take ownership of what sort of commentariat they are cultivating, or else allowing to grow unchecked. I sincerely hope that civil discussion becomes increasingly normalised in skeptical forums.

  • Ronlawhouston

    I do think you’re rationalizing a bit. However, you did admit that you have two minds about the issue.

    If you are truly for free speech you have to defend the right of folks to say even the most vile and hateful things. One of the reasons the ACLU is so vilified is their defense of anyone’s free speech rights. The ACLU will defend a civil rights group or a hate group when it feels free speech is being curtailed.

    Being for civil discussions is a bit like being for cute kittens. Who doesn’t prefer those? Incivility may be highly distasteful, but it does provide valuable lessons about humanity. How much incivility you tolerate is a question of individual line drawing. I’m not sure there is any one right or wrong answer.

    I will say that you always host a very good discussion.

  • ThePrussian

    “No one has a right to have an article accepted for publication by a newspaper, at least not unless some sort of promise were first made to them, and even then, newspapers can surely reject pieces that breach whatever guidelines are in force.” I do agree with you on this, and further, one of the main arguments that those of us who defend freedom of speech have is that we have means of social disapproval to cause trouble for sinister types. So confusing this with censorship does undercut one of our main arguments.

  • RussellBlackford

    Thanks. I do actually agree with everyone’s free speech rights. But that right is basically a negative right against the state. And even that negative right against the state is not absolute.

    In this case, I’d probably side with Burchill if someone tried to fine her or imprison her, or whatever (though I must say that she seems to have gone out of her way to produce out and out hate speech, attempting to arouse hatred toward a group of people – she is really stretching the limits, and if she got into some sort of legal trouble, I don’t think this would be inadvertent).

    Anyway, I’d probaby side with her if she were pursued in the courts. But that doesn’t mean that her views should automatically get a platform.

    I do think that the contemporary world with things like Facebook and Twitter raises new issues as to whether we should also have certain rights against them, so I’ve flagged that as a topic of discussion … either now if you’d like to talk about it, or in the future. There are also some other questions in my mind about online speech and its suppression. I touched on this in a post at Talking Philosophy some time ago, and I’ll probably return to it, but I think it’s tricky.

    Meanwhile, freedom of speech as a political principle is classically about the power of the state to suppress speech. The sort of censorship that it classically stands against is state censorship. If the proprietors of a newspaper decide that they will not publish certain views, that might, in a sense be censorship, but I think they are generally within their rights to “censor” in that sense. The person who wants to express those views will simply need to find another outlet for them. As long as she is not prevented by law from doing so, I don’t see it as a freedom of speech issue. For example, I don’t think it’s a situation that would be covered in the US by the First Amendment, and I don’t think there would be any proper role for the ACLU.

  • Ronlawhouston

    I guess my response is that political and commercial power arises from the masses. Censorship only arises when the financial or political winds support it.

    Having read the facts behind this issue I actually agree with you. I also know that there are many ideas that I want no part in propagating.

    However, when I have a part in filtering those ideas, whether I’m an individual actor, a commercial actor, a governmental actor, or simply part of the masses that compliicitly gives others power, I’m probably lying to myself when I say I’m not censoring.

    It’s not a bad or good thing, but I think to try to convince ourselves that we’re not censoring is a bit disingenuous.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    In case you may be interested., Russell, I’ve been thinking about a different aspect to this.

    ‘I see free speech as about suppression of speech by the state.’

    State censorship is one important form, but it isn’t the only threat to ‘free speech.’ When most of your media are owned/controlled by one or two corporations, the ability of private actors to control the marketplace of ideas is far from trivial.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, it’s an issue. It was as a result of a comment that you made about this at Talking Philosophy that I wrote a post over there on what might be the wider meaning of freedom of speech in the 21st century. And why I referred to Twitter, etc., in the OP here.
    Still, freedom of speech as a political principle is really about the use of state power. Or at least that is the classical understanding expressed in, say, the First Amendment.
    Even if we want to go wider, perhaps thinking that there is a sort of “political” suppression of speech that goes beyond the state, there are still problems.
    Think about whether we should we ban or severely regulate pornograph? I don’t think the case to do so has been made out, so I tend to oppose such laws. But should we, then, insist that large media corporations, for example, publish a certain amount of pornography, even against their will? I don’t think so – or at least it seems counterintuitive. If these large corporations all decide to take a stance of rejecting pornographic submissions, we may think that this is censorship (it is, isn’t it?), but I doubt that we’d consider it a freedom of speech issue in the same way as a law against pornography. Or if we did, I think that’s an argument that would require a lot of work.

  • Nelly Booth

    Seems to me she was expressing anger at what she felt was unjustified the treatment of her friends on Twitter. Looked at from that point of view, I’m with her all the way. So she uses a few unpleasant words to express her anger…. So what? Seems to me all this is about being politically correct more than anything. Stuff that.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    When I wrote that I actually hadn’t seen your post below, where you addressed my concern. I agree that it isn’t the same type of problem, and it surely isn’t amenable to the same sorts of solutions; of course it would be bizarre to force a private actor to publish pornography, or anything else for that matter. I don’t have any ready solutions to hand, but this is going to take some hard thinking from those of us concerned about genuinely free speech.

  • RussellBlackford

    I think your post is very good, Colin – you deal in more detail with an issue that I tried to touch on a post or so back, i.e. this Orwellian memory holing thing that is going on. However much I dislike Julie Burchill’s post, and however much the problem of its deletion may have been obviated in this particular intance, redacting stuff in this manner this tends to ruin the record of what actually happened.
    Must that always be a bad thing? Not necessarily. But in cases where what happened is of some public interest, I do think it’s at least a potential problem. I still think it would have been better not to have deleted the piece, once it was published.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    Thanks, Russell. Yeah, I agree. If I had been the subject of a defamatory smear story or privacy violation, I’d probably be pretty delighted if the ‘historical record’ could actually be amended. So I’m not suggesting that this new ability will al;ways be a bad thing. I just think it’s something we should be thinking about, and keeping an eye on.

  • keddaw

    In this world of it may be preferable to leave the original up and searchable but with a header saying it has been subject to legal action and it has been shown to be inaccurate and then an explanation within the text itself of the actual facts of the case.

    Otherwise anyone searching for a particular quote may turn up the ‘deleted’ web page and think it’s proof.