The armies of online censors can be terrifying

Feminist backlash against the censors shows tide turning in free speech debate

Feminist backlash against the censors shows tide turning in free speech debate

For the first time in a long time, the censors are on the back foot. Efforts to ban secular campaigner Maryam Namazie from speaking at Warwick University have been reversed. Then yesterday, feminist campaigners Caroline Criado Perez and Julie Bindel pulled out of the Feminism in London conference in protest at efforts to no-platform fellow panellist Jane Fae. We are seeing the first signs that the tide is turning in the free speech debate. Event organisers are finally coming under as much pressure from free speech defenders as they are censors.

(Quick declaration of interest: I went to Warwick for my MA, I'm close friends with Perez and Fae regularly writes for this website. None of that has any bearing really, but it's worth mentioning because online censors – from the Corbynistas to the safe spaces lot – struggle to accept that anyone holds opinions for any reason other than self-interest. I might as well beat them to it.)

The Warwick debate started just like all the other travesties of this sort, with the dull thud of comparison between offence, psychological damage and warnings of disorder. This has been the pattern for years now. Political disagreement has been increasingly equated mental trauma in a university culture dominated by a form of therapy-style political discourse. 'Safe spaces', where students are protected from different opinions or people of a particular gender or skin colour, have been largely accepted by authorities. There have been few efforts to challenge the students who demand emotional protection from challenging ideas.

Instead, a terrible combination of managerial impotence, financial caution and political timidity has allowed the campus censors to run amok. It is costly and legally risky to police demonstrations against an event. And student groups have proved very effective at framing their demands for censorship in the language of a 'duty of care' from the university. This is partly to do with the changed relationship between students and the institutions they study in. Fees turned what was once a teacher-pupil relationship into a service-consumer one.

When Warwick Student Union looked into the writing of Namazie, who had been invited to speak to the local secular society, they found that "a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus". They added: "This is in contravention of our external speaker policy".

It's worth interrogating that sentence. It suggests that any idea which raises passions must be banned on campus.

The campaign against the ban exploded overnight, helped by the high-profile support of people like Richard Dawkins, Nick Cohen and Ben Goldacre. This online response is crucial. The armies of censors online can be terrifying. There are thousands of them and they are extremely aggressive. They scare individuals and they scare institutions. People, naturally, don't want to spend days under an avalanche of abusive tweets and Facebook messages. They also don’t want the blogs and social media accounts of their friends and loved ones to be trawled over by these strange online armies for material to be used against them. Most normal people back down in the face of this type of attack. It’s partly why institutions have proved such easy targets.

But the strong response on Twitter to Namazie's ban turned the table. Suddenly, there was an opposite and equal pressure not to ban her.

After a few days' pressure, Warwick student union announced it was looking at the decision. Later, they reversed it. In a statement they said:

"We want to assure everyone of Warwick Students' Union's continued commitment to free speech. We also want to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone who has expressed concern, or disappointment, or who has been hurt by this significant error and we will be issuing a full and unequivocal apology to Maryam Namazie."

A similar situation played out yesterday, when it emerged that Fae was stepping down from the Feminism in London (FiL) conference. Fae is a moderate, articulate and very well-read commentator on a range of issues, including pornography, obscenity law, efforts at online filtering and a range of other matters. She is also transgender. Some radical feminists took issue with her supposedly because of her views on pornography and sex work, although the vitriol aimed her way afterwards suggests there is a significant element of transphobia at work too.

"The problem is that certain peeps had created a situation via a whispering campaign in which backing became irrelevant," Fae wrote to me in an email. "We were damned if we went ahead, damned if we didn't…so I attempted to tiptoe away quietly…which was sort of working until yesterday, when it all went nasty. I am now at the centre of a shit storm, as are some of my nearest and dearest. My ex, for instance, has had to take her old blog offline because people appeared to be mining it for dirt to use against me."

This is the standard tactic adopted by the online censors: demands that organisers remove someone from an event followed by an intimidation campaign against them online. In this case the organisers did not remove Fae from the event. Everyone involved praises them for their intentions and their good nature. But they did not necessarily support her either. They told her of the situation and tried to manage it, but Fae, keen to avoid it costing them the conference, stepped down. This is how free speech is destroyed in modern Britain – not by laws, but by taking the easy route in the face of organised campaigns.

Perez, who was due to attend as a speaker, had had enough of seeing events like this policed according to a narrow consensus on what could be discussed and who was entitled to discuss it. She wrote on her blog:

"It is with great regret therefore, and apologies to the organisers, who I am sure feel stuck between warring feminist factions, that I feel I must pull out of the conference too. I wish the conference every success and I know it will still be a great event organised by fantastic and committed feminists. But this is an issue of principle for me. I cannot in good faith even passively condone what I can’t see as anything other than an effective no platforming."

Hours later, Bindel, who has herself often been the victim of no-platforming policies, did the same.

"It is particularly difficult for me to do so because FiL is one of the few feminist conferences that dare include me on their programme (in case of disruption from anti-feminists claiming I am transphobic, biphobic, Islamophobic and whorephobic). In fact, FiL had, in previous years, left me off the programme (but had me speak) in case the smooth-running of the conference suffered as a result. This year I told the organisers that I would only agree to speak at the event if my name were included in the programme, to which they agreed. It therefore feels particularly upsetting to find that the organisers are once again being bullied about one of their speakers, Jane Fae, this time on the grounds that she has expressed and still holds some pro-pornography views."

It is sad to imagine the organisers, who clearly support broad inclusive debate, seeing their event fall apart around them as these warring factions challenge the other side's right to speak.

But applying this sort of pressure to organisers is the only way to ensure free speech is no longer degraded in this country. Until this week, all the pressure came from one end, with just a handful of commentators raising the alarm about it. Now we are seeing social media being utilised to support free speech. And we are seeing prominent voices from within feminism standing up to the censors. In both cases, they put equal pressure on organisers to keep speakers on the agenda, despite the demands of the online lynch mob.

With any luck, it might finally be the start of a fight back against those who would limit our rights to free speech. The tide may finally be turning in Britain's new culture of offence.