Rod Liddle doesn’t understand freedom of speech

COMMENT: Controversial speakers have free speech to express their views, but the people you’re talking to have free speech to make it clear what they think. Especially a speaker who thinks he’s entitled to talk down to people who never asked for him.

And now, a rare post on this blog: a post about neither theatre nor anything else in the arts. The reason I’m doing this is that, as well as christontheatre being a theatre blog, it is also an anti-censorship blog. Normally, I am anti-censorship in the name of artistic freedom, but I am also pro freedom of speech in general. Until, now, however, everything I have written has been in support of people on the receiving end of censorship. This time, however, I am going to be singling out someone who thinks his right to free speech is being infringed when it isn’t. There are a lot of people like him, they give free speech a bad name, and it is in the interests of anyone who values free speech to stand up to this bullshit.

The reason I’m taking action over this one is because I’m doing something I’ve criticised other people for not doing: speaking out when things you say you care about happen on your doorstep. This relates to a shitstorm going on at my old university which I still have connections to. Tim Luckhurst, the principal of South College (the newest college of Durham University), invited a speaker for the end-of term Christmas formal dinner. Normally a non-issue, interesting and entertaining speakers (along boring, unfunny and incomprehensible speakers) come to dinners all the time. However, this speaker was Rod Liddle, who made exactly the kind of speech you’d expect Rod Liddle to make. Contrary to what some people think, the students of Durham University are not a bunch of ultra-right-wing Katie Hopkins worshippers and this speech went down like a lead balloon. This has escalated into widespread calls for Luckhurst to be sacked.

I will give my 2p’s worth on that row later, but what I’m really interested in is Rod Liddle’s reaction to this. He is demanding an apology from Durham University and implying that his right to free speech has been infringed. Now, there are some valid criticisms to be made of the anti-Liddle protests, but that does not stop Rod Liddle being wrong. For the reasons I will go into, Rod Liddle has not had his free speech infringed – and, if anything, he is the one who lacks respect for free speech. Here’s why.

5 inconvenient points about freedom of speech

Now, one thing I will be doing here is disregarding what Rod Liddle actually said. I get the impression that he (along with Katie Hopkins, James Delingpole, Laurence Fox and many others) earns a living by making right-wing offensive comments for the sake of it. However, once you start apply different standards for people expressing certain opinions – even horribly sexist or racist opinions – you are treading on thin ice. You can consider the points here applicable to anybody expressing any opinion anywhere on the political spectrum.

If I have understood Rod Liddle’s position correctly (source here), he believes he was invited to speak in good faith, and therefore he has to right to say whatever he likes and the students he spoke to were duty-bound to listen politely. Should that be what he calls free speech, he’s wrong on every count. Here’s an explanation of how freedom of speech works and how it’s not what he thinks it is.

1: Freedom of speech is a right for all, not a privilege for some

Let’s start with this nonsense that free speech is a free pass for anyone invited as a speaker. It’s an enormous position of privilege to be invited to speak to hundreds of people as the guest of honour in any event. Does Tim Luckhurst plan to extend this invitation to anyone who wants it? Of course not, that’s impossible. So what give Rod Liddle special rights to say what he wants and be listened to? Just because someone in a position of power says he deserves it? It would be less blatant if there was some balance to this – maybe an equally vile left-wing agitator for the next formal dinner – but it still wouldn’t be freedom of speech. It doesn’t matter whether you’re aiming for one-sided partisanship or a voice from all sides: as soon as you’re curating who gets heard, it’s no longer free speech. And anyone fortunate enough to get an invitation should realise the platform they’ve been given is a privilege and not a right.

What I think some people are confusing this with is freedom of assembly. If a group of people wish to invite someone to speak at their event, that’s freedom of speech provided another group of people who wish to invite a different speaker gets the same. Rod Liddle might have had a leg to stand of if he’d been invited to, say, Durham Union Society*. In this case, Durham Union Society is an opt-in society which no-one is forced to join, and no-one is forced to attend the event. If you still object, you are free to mount a protest or turn up and tell the world what it is he’s getting wrong. Members of any student society are of course free to vote out their leadership if they have a problem with what they’re doing, but you have no business telling a society you’re not part of who they can and can’t invite just because you disapprove.

[*: Not to be confused with Durham Students’ Union. Durham Union Society is the debating society. There’s a whole load of free speech arguments surrounding them – I am old enough to remember the controversial speakers they’ve invited and the veiled threats of indiscriminate violence made from NUS in response – but that’s another story. Bottom line is that no-one has to go to a DUS event if they don’t want to.]

But we’re not discussing Durham Union Society here, we’re discussing an invitation made at the behest of the Principal of one of the colleges. How does that fit in?

2: Freedom of speech is not freedom from responsibilities

Before getting into this, it is worth explaining Durham University’s collegiate system a little. It’s not like halls of residence at most universities – colleges have a lot of autonomy. The exact powers keep changing, but matters such as student welfare and behaviour are firmly with them. College Principals are very senior positions, and whilst the central university might have helped out with logistics of inviting a speaker, the buck firmly stops with the Principal on a matter such as that.

A common argument against free-for-all free speech is “You do not shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.” That argument, I think, is unhelpful. Most advocates of free speech take that as the right to express any opinion you like rather than the right to right to say what you like. For example, criticising a religion is fair game, but following people who’ve just walked out of a Church or Mosque or Synagogue screaming the same thing in their face is harassment. You’d need a damned good reason (such as incitement to violence) to punish someone for simply expressing an opinion.

However, plenty of people hold positions of responsibility that aren’t always compatible with expressing any opinion you want. A worker at a domestic violence shelter who says that victims must have done something to provoke it will be sacked. Likewise a kebab shop worker who tells customers meat is murder. If you’re the president of Durham University Labour Club and invite a speaker to say “Vote Conservative” (or vice versa) you will be out faster than you can say “Motion of No Confidence”. It’s perfectly normal for what you can say or who you can invite to be limited by what position of responsibility you hold.

So, what about if you’re a college principal? You have a responsibility to the students. Tim Luckhurst believes, by getting students to listen to views they’re not accustomed to, he is doing them a favour – the students demonstrating against him clearly don’t agree. However, all this misses the point over what the event was. The simple purpose of of a formal dinner – widely understood by everyone at the university except him – is to have a good time. Colleges are their own communities and these are supposed to be joyous occasions to bring everyone together. The defence of “If you don’t like the speaker, don’t go” does not apply here – you cannot reasonably expect people to skip an event such as this because they object to being talked down do (and certainly not when you are being talked down to over your gender or ethnicity). And it certainly doesn’t stand up when you didn’t tell anyone who was coming until the meal itself.

I realise a Christmas social event is small fry – the bigger issue is what this says about his attitude to students the rest of the year. That, I guess, depends on what else has been going on in South College, which I’m not up to speed on. But I’m afraid that if you invite a speaker to a major social event who’s that inappropriate, you have only yourself to blame if people draw worse conclusions about you and your position.

3: The right to free speech is not a right to be listened to

But that’s enough about who should and shouldn’t be invited to speak at a dinner. At the end of the day, Rod Liddle is not responsible for the decisions of a college principal. Rod Liddle earns a living expressing outrageous opinions specifically for the purpose of causing outrage, but he can do that, because he has free speech. The problem is that Rod Liddle mistakes the right to free speech with the right to an audience. A common misconception held by many people – and the left are just as guilty of this as the right – is that if no-one supported or paid any attention to what they said, their voice is being gagged. Tough titties. No-one owes you their time just because you like the sound of your own voice.

The fact it’s an academic environment does not change things. Freedom of speech in universities is protected under section 43 of the 1986 Education Act, but all that means is that you are not allowed to ban events on university property simply because you don’t approve of somebody’s views. It does not place an obligation to allow outspoken people to speak at dinners or other events, nor does it place an obligation to turn up and listen politely. And why should it? We’re not at school, students are adults, and it is not the job of university managers to tell students what to think or how to live their lives. Unless you are a political science tutor (where it can argued that you need to listen to a range of views to do the course), which views a student chooses to listen to are none of your business.

If you want to be listened to and agreed with, there’s one simple rule: you have to make people want to listen. Rod Liddle knows the rules of the game as much as anyone – there are thousands of people competing for attention, most of us can’t hope to get more than a few soundbites through the crowd, but if your soundbites are good, people might listen more. Earn their respect and they may encourage other people to take you seriously. Sure, there are some people who won’t willingly listen to anything that doesn’t support their position, but we all have to put up with that. If you want an audience, you have to earn it.

Alternatively, you can dig your heels in, behave like you and you alone are entitled to have your voice heard, and use your connections to impose yourself on an audience who neither asked you along or wanted you. In which case, point 4 comes into play.

4: Freedom of speech works both ways

Yes, Rod Liddle has free speech, but guess what? So do the students of South College. Rod Liddle is allowed to call modern students a bunch of whiny woke crybabies if he wants, but the students in question are equally allowed to tell Rod Liddle to go fuck himself. I’d say walking out of the speech was a pretty mild response – if I was sitting there, I’d be all up for starting a sing-along of “Who’s the wanker on the stage?”

Don’t get me wrong – this is not my preferred form of political discourse. It’s much better if everyone can agree to speak one at a time. When it’s not your turn, you listen, and if you don’t like what anyone else you can have your say afterwards. That his how JCR and student union meetings worked when I was around, and still do work as far as I’m aware. I’m happy to debate the exact details, but the principle is quite basic: a mutual understanding that you allow other people to speak, and they allow the same for you.

That is most definitely not the case here. As far as Luckhurst and Liddle were concerned, Rod Liddle’s platform was for him and him alone, whilst it was the duty of the students present to shut up and listen quietly. Sorry, no. If the only way you are prepared to speak to others is where you don’t have to listen to or respect their views, they should have no qualms about talking over and disrespecting your views. Especially if they didn’t get a choice whether to hear you speak in the first place.

As for Liddle’s moaning about manners: you can fuck off there too (swearing intentional). You can turn up somewhere you know you’re not wanted to to talk down to people, behave like you’re better than them, and pick the most inflammatory things to talk about; but to go on to claim you’re the one with good manners requires a special kind of arrogance. Grow up. You were disrespectful, they were disrespectful back, the end. Frankly, it beggars belief that the agitators who call everyone else fragile snowflakes always turn out to be ultra-sensitive pricks the moment somebody answers back.

5: Free speech means nothing if it’s only free speech for your mates

I’ll end this by making a few concessions in Rod Liddle’s favour. I have heard complaints about some universities becoming centres of woke left indoctrination. I have no reasons to believe Durham University has gone this way, but perhaps I’m more out of the loop than I think. So let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, Durham University is the populist right’s worst nightmare: lecturers, university management and the students’ union collude to present only accepted woke left views, and anyone who dares to stray from this is silenced. So bad is the situation that the principal of South College has to resort to forcing students to sit through a speech from someone they otherwise wouldn’t listen to so that they have a balanced world view. I don’t believe this is the case at all, but let’s imagine it for a moment.

If that’s what Tim Luckhurst truly believes, then I can just about see where he’d be coming from – whilst not strictly freedom of speech, it could be justified in the name of its close cousin, balanced debate. But I’ll say straight off: I don’t believe for a second Luckhurst and Liddle would be saying this if it was the other way round. Am I supposed to believe that if Durham University was in the pocket of the populist right, Tim Luckhurst would invite speakers from the woke left to support free speech? Sorry, but I’m calling bullshit.

One of the reasons I’m calling bullshit is that the pair of them are best mates going way back before South College days. Another reason is that Luckhurst was clearly angry that his students weren’t going along with his red carpet treatment. But more widely, this is a predictable pattern of behaviour I’ve seen across the political spectrum. Too many times, when people claim to stand up for free speech, what they really mean is free speech for people who have the same opinions as them. Whenever anyone else is censored, they ignore it, or worse, make excuses for it it (or, worst of all, argue that silencing your enemies is pro-free speech because it make it easier for your mates to express their views unchallenged). Honestly, they’re that predictable.

If Rod Liddle can show me a time he stood up to right-wingers trying to get a left-winger silenced, I will take this back. However, all I can find so far is are interviews with the occasional off-message left-wingers – in order, I suspect, to make other left-wingers look bad. That’s not good enough. I can never stress this enough: if you don’t believe in free speech for people who don’t agree with, you don’t believe in free speech. And if your idea of free speech is requiring hundreds of people shut up and listen to you, good luck explaining how that right extends to anyone else.

[Update 11/01/21: And the punchline: I’m stumbled across on a clip from GB News where Tim Luckhurst is berating Emily Maitlis for criticising Dominic Cummings. To be fair, he does put some nuance in his comments, but the bottom line is that he stand up for free speech when controversial right-wingers have their say, but when people are criticising controversial right-wingers his free speech ideals are nowhere to be seen. In summary: free speech my bollocks.]

Postscript:

I want to keep this on the subject of what is and isn’t censorship, but there’s a few related issues about the uproar I want to address.

Firstly, I’ve seen a lot of media coverage try to paint Rod Liddle’s visit as representative of what Durham University is like. That is unfair. There is an ongoing problem with some rich students behaving like arseholes which needs debating, but not here. No-one is supporting the idiot principal running South College here, so it’s not fair to link these issues whilst the national spotlight is on Durham University.

There is one point and one point only where I agree with Tim Luckhurst’s supporters: he should be allowed to defend himself. It is normal to not allow the defendant in a disciplinary case to publicly comment on the case whilst it is ongoing, and for something like alleged sexual harassment that makes sense. However, there are no confidentiality issues here. I’ve seen some pretty nasty orchestrated campaigns against vocal academics leading to an investigation over the most trivial of matters, which conveniently allows everyone to continue running endless attack pieces with no right of reply. So let Luckhurst defend himself – whether he chooses to calm things down or dig himself into a deeper hole is his call.

So, should he be sacked, like many students are demanding? I’m extremely hesitant for it to come to that. There’s a fine line here between sacking someone as punishment for not doing their job, and sacking someone as punishment for expressing the wrong opinion – I really don’t want to give any legitimacy to the latter one. That said, I suspect there’s more to this than one ill-advised decision over a dinner speaker. In my experience of student politics at Durham, you don’t go from zero to demanding a principal’s head over one incident – there are usually good reasons why relations were deteriorating before then. I fear we are already at the point where relations are irreparably broken and he’s no longer able to do his job effectively. If that’s the case, I must reluctantly conclude he has to be moved on.

But let’s make no mistake about this. If he loses his post, he’s brought it on himself. Free speech is a right for all, but the power to invite a speaker and require an audience to be quiet and listen is a privilege for a few. And unless he has a very good explanation ready for the hearing, Tim Luckhurst has abused this privilege.

Rod Liddle has his free speech – the free speech he is against is other people’s freedom to answer back. Anyone who supports free speech and opposes censorship should have no time for this.

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