Debating the vexed issue of how much free speech is too much

Debating the vexed issue of how much free speech is too much Veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell was broadly opposed to so-called ‘cancel culture’.

There are so many hot button issues out there, so many battles in the culture wars, so many threats to democracy, it can all get a little head wrecking.

It’s welcome then to get a debate that’s calm and reasoned, like the discussion on free speech with our own David Quinn and Nathan Young, deputy editor of UCD’s University Observer on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, Tuesday). I thought stand-in presenter Sinead Ryan did particularly well in how she handled it. What prompted the item was the British government’s appointment of a ‘free speech champion’ for the universities, as an antidote to ‘cancel culture’. David defined free speech as being able to speak your mind, with broad parameters, but some limitations. There were no hard and fast rules, but he thought it was preferable to err on the side of freedom. Mr Young pretty much agreed with most of what Mr Quinn said, though despite the common ground, the item had the feel of a discussion of opposites, an illusion of division, when maybe it was only a difference of emphasis.


Mr Young was concerned about the Tories’ initiative and seemed to fear this would only be protecting views from the right. He wasn’t keen on the idea of an arbiter, and anyway didn’t think UCD was particularly prone to the type of censorship under discussion. He came up with a rather odd phrasing – Ms Ryan asked him if people had a right not to be offended, and he replied that people had a right to be offended (anyone want to claim that right?) and to complain about it! Further he said people had a right to turn down an invitation, hardly the point – maybe deflection, or interview nerves?

Mr Quinn was wary of the ‘safe spaces’ concept, regarding it as a threat to diversity of opinion. This was particularly true for debating societies (no point debating just with people who agree with you), but both agreed there could be other college societies where it would be appropriate, presumably support groups for the vulnerable or private gatherings for people with particular interests.


Also, in response to the ‘free speech champion’, the issue was discussed that night on Iain Dale (LBC – catchup on phone app only). Typically of LBC, Mr Dale had no disinclination to give his own views. A moderate gay Conservative, he asked where else would you get diversity of views but in a university and he didn’t have much time for no-platforming except in the most extreme cases. He instanced a case where a mature student was expelled from a social work course for saying God hated homosexuality, and that homosexuals do ‘wicked acts’. Mr Dale thought these views “despicable” and “abhorrent” but he didn’t favour the expulsion (which was later reversed). He thought instead people should have tried to persuade him of “the error of his views”.

His first guest was Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, who said he found himself ostracised, experiencing a “low level campaign of harassment” for being in favour of going ahead with Brexit after the people’s vote. Another guest, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell thought the problem was real but often exaggerated. He wasn’t against the free speech champion idea on principle but wondered how this person would be accountable, feared that the initiative was not taken from high principle, and that it might look sectarian (in a political sense) with the  conservatives using the issue as a “wedge issue” in the culture wars.

He favoured the right to free speech (a ‘precious’ right) except in three specific cases – libel, harassment and incitement to violence. So, ironically, Mr Tatchell and David Quinn were pretty much in agreement on this issue…an interesting alignment.


Finally, there are two other programmes well worth catching up on. Bowman Sunday (RTÉ Radio 1) featured an item about singer Delia Murphy. Best known for her music, she was also wife of TJ Kiernan, Irish ambassador to the Vatican during the Second World War, which gave her the opportunity to discreetly help Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty in his work of saving prisoners of war and Jews from the Nazis. Later, Sunday morning’s Mass on RTÉ One was reverent and graceful, featuring the most beautiful music, much of it composed by Fr Liam Lawton, from the musicians and singers of Brackenstown parish in Swords.

It was a tonic to all the head wrecking.


Pick of the Week
I Am with You
EWTN Saturday February 27, 11am

A documentary about the young Italian computer programmer Carlo Acutis who was beatified last year.

Songs of Praise
BBC Two Sunday February 28, 1.15pm

Sean Fletcher explores Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, and hears about the daily life of the Cistercian monks who lived there.

Bravery Under Fire
EWTN Sunday February 28, 9pm

This original EWTN docudrama presents the life and ministry of Fr Willie Doyle SJ, an Irish Jesuit priest who was killed in action during the First World War.