Conservatism is not just naked nastiness. It flourishes sometimes by appealing to instincts and interests, but often too by successfully presenting narrow agendas as vaunted universal ideals. Our contemporary free speech wars are an excellent case study.

Free speech was once a demand pitted against repressive power, against the incarceration of dissenters and the suppression of pamphleteers. Prison walls prevented heroes and villains alike from organising against the powerful. Now with just a little cunning and duplicity the American right has transformed free speech into a means to advance suppression, not undermine it. By changing the demand from a negative one – the ability to organise unconstrained by state power – to a positive one (that authorities should step in to ensure right-wing voices are present in communities that don’t want them) they have made possible the deployment of “free speech” as a battle cry by those suppressing speech: protests against right-wing speakers must be smashed, in the defense of freedom. Power disciplining its subjects for their peaceful political activity is what political freedom really looks like, on this view. If you doubt it, read on.

This new conservative conception of free speech is often accompanied by sanctimony, the profession of high principles and a tendency to misquote Voltaire. Behind all that, a partisan axe is at work. The move from a negative to a positive conception of free speech is selectively applied by the right. These free speech warriors do not demand that the print and broadcast media open their pages and studios to dissenting voices on the left, rarely heard as wealthy liberals face off against wealthy conservatives in America’s distorted public sphere. Theirs are the voices that can afford airtime. Capitalism and free speech are not easy bedfellows. The right worries not at all about how different levels of money and social power elevate the speech of some and marginalize the opinions of others, except on college campuses and other spaces where they imagine the left has made advances. Their conception of free speech demands the intervention of power to balance debates by offering platforms to the ignored or the hated, but only in those few corners of the nation where the otherwise ignored or hated have found some sanctuary (which is how conservatives read universities: the truth is of course not quite so serene). To demand balance only in those cases seeks to bring spaces of dissent into line with stifling national norms. It is to treat “free speech” as the rhetorical framing for a partisan bid to quash a flimsy left. All or nothing: that is perhaps how we should champion the positive conception of free speech. Either the quest to balance debates is comprehensive in its reach or it is abandoned to laissez-faire, where we each battle for a hearing under grossly unequal conditions, in a world where people use their control over particular spaces to lock out their antagonists. Instead the new free speech warriors want the worst of all worlds; usually they trust their marketplace of ideas to shut out the left, and whenever that fails they turn to repressive force to ensure the same outcome. It is a familiar pattern on the right, but the intellectual achievement in this case is to make even the moment of freedom’s abandonment look like freedom’s truest articulation.


This is the story that has been unfolding at Columbia University in recent days, culminating in 100 faculty members signing a furious letter to the University’s President, free speech aficionado Lee Bollinger. The story started predictably enough. The student Republican society invited a far-right street fighter from Britain to speak on campus. With multiple criminal convictions for violent abuse, Stephen Lennon changed his name to “Tommy Robinson” to hide his fascist past and founded a vigilante force he called the English Defence League. Their provocative strategy was to march through Muslim areas in shows of intimidating force, borrowing the technique used by the British Union of Fascists to target Jews in the 1930s. As Robinson told the crowd at one rally:

Every single Muslim watching this video… we have built a network from one end of this country to the other end… and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League.

Banned from entering the US after a conviction for identity theft, Robinson planned to join students over Skype. People might reasonably disagree about whether such a figure should be afforded the privilege (not a right, surely) of a platform on a university campus. We might legitimately ask Columbia University how much they spent on security for the event, and we might even propose some better uses for that cash.

None of these concerns forms the central issue here. For better or worse Robinson spoke, and nobody really tried very hard to stop him. This story is instead about an attempt by the University to shut down the speech of peaceful protestors opposing Robinson in the name of free speech. It is for that reason that this story exemplifies the horrid contortions of the conservative deployment of “free speech” as a political weapon.

On the night Robinson spoke, hundreds of students gathered to express their opposition to Islamophobia. From nearby Harlem, Black Lives Matter chapters mobilised local residents for the protest. Together they stood outside the building chanting and singing. Plenty of appalled students had secured tickets to attend the event, and it quickly became apparent inside the room that the twenty or so student Republicans would be heavily outnumbered by their critics. At that point, with about thirty protestors sitting alongside Republicans all waiting for the event to begin, Columbia administrators pulled the doors shut. The event had not yet started, there had been no dramatic disruptions, and the majority of the seats in the large hall sat empty. Outside, 150 students stood queuing. Many had tickets for the talk. Some were, it seems, identified as activists and kept out. As it became clear that university staff were stepping in to secure a safe space for an invited bigot, inside the room we began to chant. “Let them in!” we demanded, while students were locked out of the room, and then: “Free speech! Practice what you preach!” Columbia’s Rules of Conduct, later used to begin disciplinary proceedings against almost twenty of us, stipulate that free speech includes the right to engage with ideas – not, in other words, to be locked out as were the majority of students hoping to attend this event.

Robinson’s talk went ahead. He got his chance to call a woman reporting Islamophobic abuse a “liar”; the student Republicans got their chance to scream “deport!” at another student asking a question and revealing his undocumented status. Outside the hall, a sizeable crowd chanted “let us in!” and was ignored. The doors stayed locked, we inside stood at the front of the room with placards and some of us asked Robinson questions. Protestors were stood next to the laptop through which Robinson was communicating but nobody grabbed it or shut it down; we expressed our views and let the event carry on. Then everyone went home. Nothing about the evening had seemed especially remarkable, save the University’s complicity in shutting out students’ ability to express themselves peacefully and engage a speaker on their own campus.

Three days later, most of those who had been inside the room received an email from Suzanne Goldberg, a University Vice-President, informing us that we might be charged with violating university rules on free speech. A flurry of statements from University bureaucrats followed – perhaps the most Orwellian case being John Coatsworth, the Provost, who sent two batches of emails at the same time. In one, he wrote to all students and staff: “The University is committed to defend the right of all the members of our community to exercise their right to invite, listen to, and challenge speakers whose views may be offensive and even hurtful to many of us.” In the other, he wrote to protestors arbitrarily banning us from attending future Republican events. Some of us turned up to ask Herman Cain questions the following week, and were barred from the room by campus security. After 100 Professors wrote to the University in our support the whole disciplinary process was swiftly dropped, but when the Republicans hosted “alt-right” conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich last Monday Columbia went into overdrive: this time the whole building in which Cernovich was due to speak was placed on lockdown. Cernovich praises date-rape. A large hall, usually seating about 400 people, was secured for the event. The Republicans put out only about 40 seats while Columbia’s security staff shut out protestors seeking to enter the sparse, empty room to engage with the speaker. The NYPD were called onto campus before the talk. Truly all the muscle this liberal university could muster was deployed to secure a razor-sharp safe space for a grinning rape apologist. There was no violence. The few protestors who made it inside held up some placards and asked the speaker some questions – this was the kind of mob against which Columbia felt the need to call in the police.

Free speech is typically presented as a neutral ground, hovering above the realm of political contests to permit all while favouring none. Twice now in the last few weeks Columbia has hosted racists. Columbia expended time, money and effort on a significant security operation to protect those racists, shoved out opposing students and then sought to punish activists for waving placards and chanting a few slogans during an event that went ahead peacefully. It takes some intellectual somersaults to frame all that as the neutral advocacy of free speech, and not the championing of some speech over other speech. Crude dishonesty helps. If the left can be imagined as a violent force preventing speech from taking place, then clearing them out becomes more easily defensible. Tommy Robinson posted a video to YouTube shortly after his talk where he said:

The speech I was due to give, which is an hour-long speech, looks in depth at the university situation in the UK and in America with Islam… I was unable to actually give that speech because the hall was taken over with these protestors.

On the evening itself he had posted the following message to the Republicans on Skype:

Robinson got his Q&A, and a lengthy one, exactly as he had asked. But his line was repeated over the coming days by University administrators who insisted the event had been “disrupted” without consulting any of the student protestors for our accounts. As that claim seemed to fall away, Suzanne Goldberg instead told us that merely interrupting a speaker even momentarily constituted a violation of free speech. Any heckling in any room ever should be punished swiftly. It was a bizarre understanding of free speech, issued by an authority figure seeking to interrogate protestors, all ostensibly in the defence of political liberties.

Columbia’s managers assure us that they dislike Tommy Robinson. That is hardly a surprise, but it renders this case all the more interesting. This is not a story of the left seeking to shut down expression in the furtherance of a partisan agenda, but neither is it simply a case of the right attempting the same thing. Had it not been for a last-minute intervention by our tenured supporters, we might well have faced suspension from the University for protesting. Had we been disciplined for our speech the right would have won that victory, but they would have won it not on their own but by subcontracting to people who insist on their anti-racist, progressive credentials. What is noteworthy here is that the repressive conservative conception of free speech has become so generally accepted that avowed liberals now feel the need to rush into battle under its standard. All too often, as the saying (almost) goes, the liberal is only a conservative waiting to be mugged.