Is the tide turning?

Ian Dunt says the censors are on the back foot at last.

Efforts to ban secular campaigner Maryam Namazie from speaking at Warwick University have been reversed. Then yesterday, feminist campaigners Caroline Criado Perez and Julie Bindel pulled out of the Feminism in London conference in protest at efforts to no-platform fellow panellist Jane Fae. We are seeing the first signs that the tide is turning in the free speech debate. Event organisers are finally coming under as much pressure from free speech defenders as they are censors.

(Quick declaration of interest: I went to Warwick for my MA, I’m close friends with Perez[,] and Fae regularly writes for this website. None of that has any bearing really, but it’s worth mentioning because online censors – from the Corbynistas to the safe spaces lot – struggle to accept that anyone holds opinions for any reason other than self-interest. I might as well beat them to it.)

He runs through what happened with Warwick and Maryam, and is brought up short at the same place I was.

When Warwick Student Union looked into the writing of Namazie, who had been invited to speak to the local secular society, they found that “a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus”. They added: “This is in contravention of our external speaker policy”.

It’s worth interrogating that sentence. It suggests that any idea which raises passions must be banned on campus.

Which would ban most ideas that are of any value.

The campaign against the ban exploded overnight, helped by the high-profile support of people like Richard Dawkins, Nick Cohen and Ben Goldacre. This online response is crucial. The armies of censors online can be terrifying. There are thousands of them and they are extremely aggressive. They scare individuals and they scare institutions. People, naturally, don’t want to spend days under an avalanche of abusive tweets and Facebook messages. They also don’t want the blogs and social media accounts of their friends and loved ones to be trawled over by these strange online armies for material to be used against them. Most normal people back down in the face of this type of attack. It’s partly why institutions have proved such easy targets.

And that’s exactly why I made as much noise as I could, and did in earlier examples too, such as when Trinity College Dublin went all weird on Maryam.

A similar situation played out yesterday, when it emerged that Fae was stepping down from the Feminism in London (FiL) conference. Fae is a moderate, articulate and very well-read commentator on a range of issues, including pornography, obscenity law, efforts at online filtering and a range of other matters. She is also transgender. Some radical feminists took issue with her supposedly because of her views on pornography and sex work, although the vitriol aimed her way afterwards suggests there is a significant element of transphobia at work too.

“The problem is that certain peeps had created a situation via a whispering campaign in which backing became irrelevant,” Fae wrote to me in an email. “We were damned if we went ahead, damned if we didn’t…so I attempted to tiptoe away quietly…which was sort of working until yesterday, when it all went nasty. I am now at the centre of a shit storm, as are some of my nearest and dearest. My ex, for instance, has had to take her old blog offline because people appeared to be mining it for dirt to use against me.”

Were they going through her Twitter and Facebook too? It’s always fun when people do that. “Oh look – here’s a joke from six months ago that we can take out of context to use against her.”

This is the standard tactic adopted by the online censors: demands that organisers remove someone from an event followed by an intimidation campaign against them online. In this case the organisers did not remove Fae from the event. Everyone involved praises them for their intentions and their good nature. But they did not necessarily support her either. They told her of the situation and tried to manage it, but Fae, keen to avoid it costing them the conference, stepped down. This is how free speech is destroyed in modern Britain – not by laws, but by taking the easy route in the face of organised campaigns.

And that’s why Caroline Criado-Perez and Julie Bindel withdrew, with regret and sorrow. Hunt quotes Bindel:

“It is particularly difficult for me to do so because FiL is one of the few feminist conferences that dare include me on their programme (in case of disruption from anti-feminists claiming I am transphobic, biphobic, Islamophobic and whorephobic). In fact, FiL had, in previous years, left me off the programme (but had me speak) in case the smooth-running of the conference suffered as a result. This year I told the organisers that I would only agree to speak at the event if my name were included in the programme, to which they agreed. It therefore feels particularly upsetting to find that the organisers are once again being bullied about one of their speakers, Jane Fae, this time on the grounds that she has expressed and still holds some pro-pornography views.”

Respect to both of them.

It is sad to imagine the organisers, who clearly support broad inclusive debate, seeing their event fall apart around them as these warring factions challenge the other side’s right to speak.

But applying this sort of pressure to organisers is the only way to ensure free speech is no longer degraded in this country. Until this week, all the pressure came from one end, with just a handful of commentators raising the alarm about it. Now we are seeing social media being utilised to support free speech.

We’ve seen that before, too, but this time it worked.

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