free speech debate

Free speech debates need to go beyond the ‘radicals’ vs ‘liberals’ divide

The two views aren't necessarily on opposing sides.

“Whenever anyone dares mention the insensitivity of promoting speakers whose invitation risks legitimising such social ills as prejudice, racism or rape,” wrote Conrad Landin in The Guardian in 2013, “the same defence is given: free speech.” The journalist and activist was objecting to a controversial offer extended to France’s Right-wing Marine Le Pen to address the Cambridge University debating society.

Within university walls, but also far beyond them, it’s an old controversy. The debate’s protagonists, to be sure, have changed over time. For centuries, censorship was the preserve of the reactionary forces of monarchy, aristocracy and church. The threat posed by free speech was to monopolies of power. (In much of the world today, it still is.) Liberalism battled them.

Enter Karl Marx, stage left. Marxism turned that traditional role of liberalism on its head. Having once been viewed as the decisive force against elite power, liberalism now became the fiercest elitism of all. Capitalism’s class divisions, for Marx, had only replaced old elites with new ones.

The latter became legitimated through a mythology – a sheer ideology – of universal freedom and equality. Since the mid-20th century, that view has guided radical critiques of free speech even when Marxist doctrine is not directly cited. Within more extreme circles on both Right and Left, liberalism becomes cast not as the vanguard against the political establishment but as its creeping embodiment.

The myth of universal, individual freedom, on that view, masquerades as a bulwark against that selfsame totality of power that it, in fact, comes to absorb. Unhindered public discourse becomes not freedom’s sanctuary but its enemy. It serves not to promote marginal voices but to keep them marginal. Madame Le Pen’s Cambridge debut caters not to the critical scrutiny of established power relations, but to their mindless perpetuation.

Incomplete story

The main schism in today’s free speech debates pits liberals, advocating unbridled speech as a tool of freedom, against radicals, who unmask unbridled speech as a tool of class privilege. But that rift tells only one story. In almost all democracies today (the United States being the sole and oft-criticised exception), mainline liberal doctrines overwhelmingly require limits on provocative speech.

Liberals today largely consent to drawing lines between the lawful and the unlawful expression of ideas. They disagree only about where that boundary should lie. Indeed, an ever more distinct libertarianism has arisen in diametric opposition to the “balance of interests” approaches of our more conventional liberal approaches.

The strident (though still minority) libertarian would wholly abolish those lines in favour of free speech. Accordingly, far from dissenting from the more mainstream liberal line-drawing, radicals wish merely to draw the lines more tightly around certain types of expression. They differ from liberals only as a matter of degree, not as a matter of principle, even when they appear to adopt different philosophies or vocabularies.

Most liberals are willing, then, to draw the lines that limit speech. Meanwhile, some formidable radicals are not. Marx might well deconstruct liberalism’s universalist pretences, unmasking it as its opposite, namely, as a strategy of class entrenchment and exclusion; yet Hegel had already deconstructed that same liberal aspiration more optimistically: the ancien régime overcomes the illusion of formal equality by instilling within liberals an ingenuity sharper than that of the complacent power structure of the old aristocracy. So runs the famous master-servant dialectic.

It tacitly re-surfaces in Excitable Speech (1997), an exercise in the leftist-critique-of-leftism by Judith Butler (whose early career had indeed focused on Hegel). While the dominant radicalism condemns hate speech as an active construction and entrenchment of socio-politically disempowered group identities, Butler views such seemingly repressive acts as spurs for those groups’ political awareness and mobilisation.

Common ground

I have no wish to pull contemporary critical theory down from its heights. However, despite the Hegelian salad topped with post-modern sauce, one would struggle mightily to identify a single element in Butler’s thesis not wholly compatible with the justifications for free speech adduced in Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1869), that stodgy old stalwart of Anglo-American liberalism. Indeed, notwithstanding Marx’s bitingly anti-liberal campaigns, even he gazes suspiciously upon censorship.

A tradition as old as Mill’s, renewed by Louis Brandeis, had coupled the efficiency of free speech to that of free markets. The remedy for any bad product of markets, on that view, is more and better products. And the remedy for bad speech is “more speech”. For leftists, that coupling of free speech with free markets ends up too true by half. Marketplaces of goods serve not to overcome class divisions but to seal and to legitimate them as inevitable products of the necessary forces of “natural” competition. The “marketplace of ideas” does the same. It guarantees a vacuously formal equality of access to all, but is in fact always systemically skewed towards wealthy and powerful voices, against the subordinated ones.

Six years after Butler’s tract, however, Raoul Vaneigem, veteran exponent of Francophone post-Marxism, performed a similar act of arch-leftist rebuttal to core leftist nostrums. While liberalism couples the marketplaces of goods and of ideas to argue against regulation, and radical critique couples them in favour of it, Vaneigem’s strategy is utterly to de-couple them.

In Rien n’est sacré, tout peut se dire (2003), the situationist philosopher argues that unbridled speech, far from straightforwardly recapitulating the commodified uniformity of neo-liberal market forces, is the best weapon for de-stabilising them. Unlike the pseudo-freedom of the market, public discourse is a genuine freedom – the freedom of creative de-stabilisation of established, elitist power. (Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Žižek endorse similar views of citizen-based democracy.)

If we want to avoid the impasses and repetitions plaguing the free-speech debates, one way is to stop assuming that the liberal position always dictates one outcome, and the radical position another. Both approaches supply plausible justifications for supporting restrictions on public discourse – but even stronger grounds for opposing them.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Get ready for an 80-hour shopping marathon

Here are some tips that’ll help you take the lead.

Starting 16th July at 4:00pm, Flipkart will be hosting its Big Shopping Days sale over 3 days (till 19th July). This mega online shopping event is just what a sale should be, promising not just the best discounts but also buying options such as no cost EMIs, buyback guarantee and product exchanges. A shopping festival this big, packed with deals that you can’t get yourself to refuse, can get overwhelming. So don’t worry, we’re here to tell you why Big Shopping Days is the only sale you need, with these helpful hints and highlights.

Samsung Galaxy On Nxt (64 GB)

A host of entertainment options, latest security features and a 13 MP rear camera that has mastered light come packed in sleek metal unibody. The sale offers an almost 40% discount on the price. Moreover, there is a buyback guarantee which is part of the deal.

Original price: Rs. 17,900

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Samsung 32 inches HD Ready LED TV

Another blockbuster deal in the sale catalogue is this audio and visual delight. Apart from a discount of 41%, the deal promises no-cost EMIs up to 12 months.

Original price: Rs. 28,890

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Intel Core I3 equipped laptops

These laptops will make a thoughtful college send-off gift or any gift for that matter. Since the festive season is around the corner, you might want to make use of this sale to bring your A-game to family festivities.

Original price: Rs. 25,590

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 21,900


If you’ve been planning a mid-year wardrobe refresh, Flipkart’s got you covered. The Big Shopping Days offer 50% to 80% discount on men’s clothing. You can pick from a host of top brands including Adidas and Wrangler.

With more sale hours, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days sale ensures we can spend more time perusing and purchasing these deals. Apart from the above-mentioned products, you can expect up to 80% discount across categories including mobiles, appliances, electronics, fashion, beauty, home and furniture.

Features like blockbuster deals that are refreshed every 8 hours along with a price crash, rush hour deals from 4-6 PM on the starting day and first-time product discounts makes this a shopping experience that will have you exclaiming “Sale ho to aisi! (warna na ho)”

Set your reminders and mark your calendar, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days starts 16th July, 4 PM and end on 19th July. To participate in 80 hours of shopping madness, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Flipkart and not by the Scroll editorial team.