The price is high. It must be paid, but I think [Mick Hume, author of Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?] underestimates it. He reproduces a famous sentence from Evelyn Hall’s book The Friends of Voltaire that is often mistakenly attributed to Voltaire – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – and calls his enemies “the reverse-Voltaires, whose slogan is, ‘I know I will detest what you say, and I will defend to the end of free speech my right to stop you saying it’.” I’m not a reverse-Voltaire, but I’m something just as bad, in Hume’s typology: a “but-head”, someone who says, “I believe in freedom of speech, but … ” Anyone who says “but” must deny that the right to free speech is “indivisible”. Hume thinks that’s a fatal mistake: if you allow any exceptions, the dividing line between permitted and forbidden is no longer perfectly sharp, and you’re on a slippery slope, risking more and more restrictions. I disagree: the line is no longer sharp, but it’s not true that we’re on a slippery slope. The first amendment of the US constitution states categorically that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (Hume calls it “the global gold standard” of free speech). The court’s defence of the first amendment over the years shows how the line can be held even after exceptions are allowed, for it does place limits on free speech – for example, on “fighting words”, deliberately intended and likely to incite “imminent lawless action”; on explicit threats against specific targets; and on false shouts of “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.
Hume admits these exceptions to unrestricted free speech, and then makes a rationalisation that he condemns elsewhere: he says they’re “not cases of free speech”, “not about free speech at all”. Yet each states quite plainly and correctly that you can’t say what you like, where you like, when you like: they place a limit on speech.
So Hume is himself a “but-head”, rightly so. And his admiration for the first amendment requires him to address an issue he omits: the fact that it was used to justify Citizens United, the 2010 US supreme court ruling that opened the way for corporations to contribute unlimited funds to political causes, and, in effect, buy the leaders they want, most notably by funding political “attacks ads” on television. Here free speech is free speech for the rich and, by the same token, the silencing of the poor. For while the poor can say and publish what they want, they will not be heard by the mass of the electorate. Hume criticises the UK Communications Act 2003 on free-speech grounds, but in this case it does more for the cause of free speech than the first amendment, by prohibiting political advertising on television or radio and ensuring equality of air time (mercifully brief) for the major parties’ party political broadcasts.