On Free Speech and Silencing

Content note: Use of disablist slur, mention of death and rape threats

The issue of free speech has been in the air a great deal lately. It seems that you can’t throw a stone without hitting an article on how free speech is being suppressed and censorship is rife. I’ve read dozens of articles and posts by people stating that they’re being silenced, banned from expressing their views. (Think about that one for a moment).

“Protect free speech!” “End censorship!” “No more silencing!” are cries I’m hearing everywhere, and on the surface, I would agree. Free speech, free expression, is one of the most basic human rights. However, scratch that surface, and you’ll soon realise that the current cries come with a fundamental lack of understanding of what free speech, silencing and censorship actually are. So, here’s a summary:

What free speech is:

– Being able to express your views and state your opinions without fear of being arrested, “disappeared”, or killed by the government or the police.

I’ve been a stroppy, bleeding-heart activist for over half my life now, and the thing that started me on that path was the day when I idly flipped through an Amnesty International magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. I was outraged by what I read, and immediately joined. I’ve been a member ever since.

Amnesty is possibly most famous for its letter-writing campaigns, most of which focus on people who’ve been imprisoned or made to vanish for expressing their views. A lot of these people have views that I agree with – they’re fighting for women’s rights, indigenous rights, or to protect the environment. Some of the people, however, are members of rival political parties to the one in power.

I doubt I’d agree with everything they stand for. I’ve never found a political party that I did agree with 100%. I write letters demanding their release anyway. This is because I believe in free speech. I don’t have to like what the person says. I don’t want to see them in prison, or tortured, or killed for saying it.

What free speech is not:

– Freedom from criticism

Having someone disagree with you is not the same as being imprisoned. Having someone tell you that your views are repugnant, or ill-informed, or just plain crap, is not on a par with being tortured. Having someone tell you that they think you’re an over-inflated windbag who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is nothing like being murdered by the state.

Criticism can hurt. I still remember every word of my first bad review. It sucks, but unfortunately, accepting that not everyone is going to love you unconditionally is an important step to becoming a better writer, or speaker, or person. Criticism can also be an incredibly useful tool, that makes you think, challenges your views and pushes you to refine them or reconsider them. If you treat it as an enemy, you miss out on a lot.

– Hate speech

This one is already covered by the law. Death threats, threats of rape and other violence, and inciting hatred against marginalised groups, is illegal, and frankly, I don’t think this damages free speech at all. Making someone fear for their life or safety is not the same as expressing your views – it’s an act of violence. It’s perfectly possible to have a country where free speech is protected and cherished without legalising death threats.

– An obligation to be an arsehole (and the right to be loved for it)

Of course, some people express horrible opinions that don’t fall under the definition of hate speech, and yes, they are legally entitled to do that. I would never call for someone to be put in prison for saying, for example, that women are all shallow and manipulative with the intellectual capabilities of an egg sandwich. But I wouldn’t want to spend any time around that person.

The right to free speech doesn’t mean that it is your sacred, heroic duty to treat other people badly. It doesn’t mean that you’re brave for making other people feel small. It certainly doesn’t mean that you deserve accolades and awards for making a person feel like something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe – especially if that person is already marginalised and vulnerable. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, punching up is pretty harmless, but punching down can hurt, maim, or even kill.

As someone (unfortunately I can’t remember the source) said, “If the only thing you can say in favour of your actions is that they aren’t illegal, you might want to reconsider.” Words are actions. They have impact. Choose them wisely. Which leads me to my next point…

What censorship is:

– The suppression of speech or writing, by the government or other authorities

Again, as with free speech, censorship is when someone in a position of power drops down on you like a bureaucratic spider and stops you from talking. It’s generally done by governments, and it’s generally because they’re afraid that their power would be challenged by the piece or the person that they’re censoring. Censorship is a shackle that stops people punching up.

What censorship is not:

– Not inviting someone to an event, or turning down their article

Look, I get it. Not being invited to something sucks just as much as criticism does. I wasn’t very popular in school, and there were a lot of invites I missed out on, and it was really disappointing. But, the fact was, no-one had to invite me anywhere.

Same goes for rejections on pitches. It’s frustrating, but it happens. If a bunch of Twilight fans set up a conference, and I send in a pitch on why Twilight is dreadful, they don’t have to offer me a speaking slot (even though Twilight really is quite terrible). I have a right to write it, but they don’t have to host it. Doesn’t mean it’s censored – I can still pitch it somewhere else, or post it here, or stand in the park and read my paper aloud. No-platforming has been described as censorship, but, as this blog explains, it’s nothing like.* XKCD sums it up exceptionally well here.

Censorship isn’t the only word that’s been circulating lately – there’s also its newer, buzzier, less legally-based counterpart, silencing.

What silencing is not:

– Asking people to be more thoughtful

Telling someone “Hey, this word you used is really problematic for these reasons, would you use a different word in future?” is not silencing. It’s not even a very troublesome request. We introduce new words into our vocabulary all the time – and as someone who loves language, I’ve found that not using slurs or bigoted terms gives me a wonderful opportunity to exercise my vocabulary. After all, why call Fox News “r*****ed” when, instead, I can call it “a festering pustule swelling from the anus of humanity”?

Same goes for trigger warnings and content notes. I honestly do not understand the pushback against these – or, indeed, how anyone can call the addition of more words “silencing”. Trigger warnings are there so people who’ve experienced trauma, who have a phobia or an ongoing issue such as an eating disorder, aren’t suddenly whacked upside the head with something they’d rather avoid, something that will cause them harm.

Is this really such a terrible thing? Does it have any effect at all on people who aren’t triggered? (I’ve yet to meet someone who said “I’d have loved to have read that article, but I couldn’t, because there were like ten extra words at the beginning!“) Wouldn’t it be better to just add a couple of lines that avoid completely ruining someone’s day?

Trigger warnings don’t stop you writing about anything – they just let people make an informed decision about whether they’re okay to read it, in much the same way as a peanut allergy warning doesn’t stop the rest of us having satay chicken.

What silencing is:

– Telling people that they shouldn’t criticise, that what they’re saying doesn’t matter, that their concerns are invalid

And here is the greatest irony of this whole mess. There is silencing going on – but the ones being silenced aren’t the rich, white, cis, abled folks churning out articles about how no-one will listen to them.


Mate, I’ve done nine years of literary studies. White men have NO problem getting their stories told.

It’s the marginalised people, the people being told they shouldn’t point out racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and disablism, because “it’s too divisive and we can’t say ANYTHING any more!” It’s the people who are mocked and treated as if they don’t matter because they speak up against the status quo. It’s the people whose views are dismissed because listening to them involves an uncomfortable amount of self-reflection.

If you think dissent and disagreement is censorship – if your way of “protecting free speech” involves telling people to sit down, shut up and stop complaining – you might want to pause for a moment. Because there is a free speech issue, but it’s not the one you think.


*And before someone leaps in with the inevitable “so what if a university decided to no-platform all women? Would you defend that?” – well, the phrase ‘apples and oranges’ springs to mind. The situation is not comparable. If you’re interviewing someone for a job, you’re not allowed to turn them down because they’re a woman, but you would be allowed to turn them down if they expressed an opinion that didn’t fit with the ideals of your company, such as “I really hate anyone who isn’t white.” You’re not allowed to refuse to employ someone because of what they are, but you are, to a certain degree, based on what they say and do. This isn’t difficult.


Alice’s books are available on Amazon and Smashwords. Her webcomics, co-created and illustrated by Emily Brady, can be found at the Footloose website. Ally rambles about writing, feminism, and odd questions that cross her mind on Twitter and Facebook.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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One Response to On Free Speech and Silencing

  1. oogenhand says:

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    “inciting hatred against marginalised groups”

    And how does one determine marginalization without freedom of speech in the classical liberal sense of the word?

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