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Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in Debate, In the news, Philosophy | 12 comments


Following on from my previous post, I want to make sure that my serious reservations about the removal of Julie Burchill’s nasty-minded Comment-is-Free piece do not relate to any concerns about freedom of speech or censorship. I am more worried that a teachable moment is spoiled to an extent, and the record made slightly more complicated than necessary, if the post cannot be found easily and in its original place. Since the article has been republished elsewhere, that concern is slightly obviated, but I’d still prefer the article to remain where it originally was and for all the comments on it not to be lost, as has happened.

I’m not seeing this as a free speech issue, as I see free speech as about suppression of speech by the state. It does not mean that you get to find a publisher who wants your material. If Burchill’s piece had been rejected in the first place, I don’t think there could be any complaint. Indeed, given that the piece is little more than a litany of expressions of hatred and contempt directed at man-to-woman transgender people, it is hard to see how it had enough intellectual merit to deserve publication by a major newspaper site in the first place. Admittedly, Burchill writes with a certain vigour – I am not claiming, at all, that she is talentless. But that does not mean that this particular piece deserved publication.

So, if a newspaper decides not to accept a piece that has been submitted for publication that is not a freedom of speech issue. Nothing stopped Burchill from publishing it elsewhere (which she has done), even if she’d needed to set a new blog to do so. Nor do I see this as censorship in any interesting sense. It is not state censorship, preventing certain views and expressions of them being published within a legal jurisdiction. If a newspaper does not wish to publish certain views, perhaps, as in this instance, extreme and hateful ones, that is its prerogative as far as I’m concerned. We can call it “censorship”, but that means relatively little in a circumstance where getting published in a particular place is a privilege rather than a right. No one has a right to have an article accepted for publication by a newspaper, at least not unless some sort of promise were first made to them, and even then, newspapers can surely reject pieces that breach whatever guidelines are in force.

The upshot is that I’m not going to be going around worrying that Burchill has been censored or denied freedom of speech, just because her article is no longer available at Comment is Free.

I do want to add a caveat. First, the body that we should most fear if it is in a censoring mood is the state – it has the power to ban disliked kinds of speech across whole territories or even beyond, and it can back this up with criminal and civil offences, and with mechanisms for civil law suits. It is not like a particular publisher being uninterested in what you write, which leaves you with the options of looking for another publisher… or else publishing it yourself in one or more of the various ways that are available.

But here’s the caveat. In the twenty-first century, it is not just the state that we have to fear. In a world where so much expression is online, and so much of that depends on a relatively small number of platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and popular blogging platforms such as Blogger and Formspring), I think we do need to look at some of the very large players much as we look at the state, i.e. as centres of power that can exert great control over what is communicated. Accordingly, I favour very broad parameters for speech at these sites. E.g., Facebook has crazy rules about nudity that even prevent others from posting happy photos of themselves breastfeeding their babies. That is a form of private censorship worth protesting about.

These are, however, platforms that we all have some legitimate expectation of being able to be use to express ourselves. By contrast, no one has a legitimate expectation that freelance material they submit for professional publication will be accepted. Likewise, I have no compunction about deleting comments or banning commenters here – I hope it won’t happen often, but I am looking for civil discussion and will not look kindly on people who don’t appear to want this. Anyone who wants to make uncivil comments about whatever issue is being talked about here, from time to time, is free to go vent elsewhere. I am not government – I am not even Facebook or Twitter. I can’t and won’t prevent you from publishing whatever you like elsewhere.

There may be other caveats that should be added. In this information age, many rules probably need to change to be fairer to all comers wanting to express themselves online, and it’s worth having a conversation about this. But I don’t see any reason to change the rule, if that’s the right word, that there is no legitimate expectation of being published at a place like Comment is Free. Again, that is a privilege to be grateful for, not a right to be defended.