Arguments for Freedom of Speech (2016), by Sean Gabb

Arguments for Freedom of Speech:
A Talk Given at the London School of Economics
to the Hayek Society
on Tuesday the 16th February 2016

On Tuesday the 16th February 2016, Sean Gabb, Director of the Libertarian Alliance, travelled to the London School of Economics, to talk to the Hayek Society about freedom of speech.

The London School of Economics is developing a scheme to police all speeches to student societies. This is partly to comply with the British Government’s “anti-radicalisation” laws. The academic who sat in on this meeting was an entirely friendly presence. Even so, Dr Gabb decided at the last minute to give a speech of studied moderation.

He argued:

  • That freedom of speech means the right to publish without legal hindrance on anything that does not breach some private right or involve an act of treason – both of which conditions are to be tightly drawn and continuously monitored;
  • That our only confidence in the truth of propositions outside our immediate knowledge rests on a scholarly consensus, openly reached and openly maintained in the face of open challenge;
  • Without open consensus, knowledge becomes a matter of prudential faith, attended by some degree of private doubt;
  • That the exceptions made for the various kinds of “hate speech” are both arbitrary and inconsistent;
  • That anyone who wants universities to be a “safe space” for the sensitive is arguing not for a university as traditionally known in our civilisation, but for a nursery school.

There was a lively set of questions and answers.


  1. A pointless exercise in spineless wind-baggery.

    To summarise: Sean Gabb believes in freedom of speech as long as what he says is ok with the PTB, and won’t cost him anything either personally or professionally. Furthermore, he believes that anyone who has the courage to challenge things beyond that is an ‘oddball’.

    “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
    Noam Chomsky

    • I am not afraid to disagree with Sean Gabb and other contributors here on fundamental issues, but in this matter I have no hesitation in coming to the defence of Dr. Gabb.

      The Libertarian Alliance is the only organisation I am aware of in this country that defends freedom of speech as a principle and in accordance with traditional English liberty. Dr. Gabb leads by example in this regard.

      • Not personally, but it’s a maturing technology. If I remember, Ian B expressed opinions on the “joy of technology” thread. Might be worth opening the question to all here.

  2. [quote]”What drives censorship? There’s no overall conspiracy. There is no shadow group of people saying we will stop people from talking about this so that we can carry on robbing and exploiting and murdering at will. There are people who are unable to argue against the opinion they want to ban. And then there are other people who simply think it beneath their dignity to argue against what they want to ban. And then there are other people who simply look at the precedent of one kind of banned speech and so expect that their own dignity as a minority group requires them to insist on censorship in their own interests…for their own [inaudible]”[unquote]

    I don’t agree with this. I think the reasons for restrictions on liberty are deeper than Dr. Gabb suggests here and are to do with conflicting interests in society.

    • I agree. The excerpt you quoted is the only part of the speech I have access to (I can’t watch extended video footage with my Internet connection), but it suggests that censorship is a somewhat random process arising from disparate motives. Nothing is less random than the control over what you can say. If it were a matter of chance, it would ban or restrict criticism of such groups as whites, heterosexuals or Christians at least some of the time. It never does.

    • Tom,

      I don’t see any conflict between your view and Sean’s.

      When Sean says “There are people who are unable to argue against the opinion they want to ban,” he understates his case. Myself, I see it as the other way round; there are those (our enemies!) that want to ban ideas they can’t argue against.

      • I’m not sure that’s what Dr. Gabb meant, but anyway my point still stands, which is that the reasons for restrictions on free speech are deeper than just people being unable or unwilling to argue a case.

  3. But is it good for the Community, Dr Gabb? That must be the first question ve ask of everything in life. Alas, I fear free speech is not good for the Community, except in strictly limited doses on carefully circumscribed topics. However, this does not alter the situation for libertarians. The best way to defend free speech is to say how important it is and condemn infringements of it wherever and whenever they occur. Understanding who its chief enemies are, on the other hand, will get you nowhere. Since when has understanding the causes of a pathology been useful to those who oppose the pathology?

    But once the Left took over our universities, the free speech industry on campuses was closed down. Today PC speech codes and ideologically uniform faculties prevail, particularly in the social sciences and liberal arts, thanks to the victory of these bogus freedom-fighters.

    It is obvious to anyone with a knowledge of recent history that those responsible for these changes were predominantly Buddhist. The New Left in the US was the basically the work of Buddhist (as Stanley Rayadharmanaksha easily shows in Roots of Radicalism: Buddhists, Christians, and the Left). One would have to work overtime and very creatively to hide this palpable connection.

    But that work is being done. One attempt to divert attention came from the late Allan Bloom, the best-selling cultural critic. In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Bloom ascribed student radicalism in the 1960s to the “German connection”. It was not Buddhist kids from the suburbs but hippies high on Nietzsche and Heidegger who were wreaking havoc on American campuses.

    I lived through this period. And I do not recall meeting any of the Teutonized radicals so irately described by Bloom. The leftists of my acquaintance were all Buddhists from Sri Lanka, in whose minds traditional America and anti-Buddhism were inextricably linked. A Buddhist Conservative Wonders: Is Free Speech Really A Buddhist Tradition?

    That Paul Gottfried is obviously someone to shun.

  4. No one would reasonably disagree that we ought to have free speech but actually free speech is only a fraction of the real foundation of a free society. I think it was Ayn Rand who stated that liberty/ a right, is the freedom of action in a social context.
    When one considers how our freedom of action has been circumscribed by various pieces of government legislation .i.e anti-discrimination Acts,that is far more damaging to our liberty.
    To discriminate is to “differentiate between, for the purposes of selection”

  5. Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment because Sean’s speech seemed to be playing to an echo chamber and put forth a question I wished someone in the audience asked?

    Devil’s Advocate: Mr Gabb I agree with you that the government should place no restriction on free speech other than the very narrow restriction you mentioned on incitement to violence. But you seem to be mixing state restrictions on free speech and the practice of private or autonomous institutions in providing a platform for Angel’s like yourself to speak.

    Now we Devil’s might predominate in Universities and may well choose not to give a platform to Angel’s such as yourself. We might choose to no platform you for a variety of reasons, some wise, some unwise but we are certainly not abridging your right to free speech. There are other platforms available to you to exercise your free speech. We live in a country of many platforms, find one elsewhere, I hear the ‘Daily Angel’ echo’s your sentiments daily and has a national audience. If you can’t find one that will host your Angelic views then it is up to you to create one. Nobody has the right to be given a podium, a microphone and a large audience.

    Furthermore, our speech is as free as you. If someone invites you to speak. We are certainly entitled to exercise our right to protest your speech. We may even go so far as trying persuade the university facility to withdraw your invitation or change the nature of your invitation so that your Angelic views are subject to robust critique.

    So what are you really unhappy with? The fact that Devilish views are popular and entrenched in academia and that you face the same problems of any challenger going up against an establishment incumbent, It’s better propaganda to say that you are Galileo being punished for speaking truth to power rather than simply saying that both yourself and your arguments are so marginal and unconvincing nobody listens to them, and if they do they only illicit opposition.

    Finally you mentioned Greer and Thatchell, 2 alleged ‘free speech martyrs’, however, my understanding is that Greer was given a national platform by the BBC to air her views. Some Devilish clique at Cardiff University tried to petition the chancellor to withdraw her invitation. He refused and allowed the lecture to go ahead. In the meantime Greer’s views were widely publicised in the main stream media. She had many platforms to speak from which were largely and more influential than a lecture theatre in Cardiff. She can claim to be ‘no platformed’ but not in having her freedom of speech rescinded.

    I know less about the Thatchell incident but I understand his claim to ‘free speech martyrdom’ was to sign a document stating that people like Greer should have platforms at Universities to speak about whatever they like and he got a few thousand critical comments on twitter from some Devil activists who criticised what he said. Again, how is this a violation of his freedom of speech.

  6. very interesting speech — yes, I think you’re right that those who avail themselves of free speech on disapproved topics are oddballs, and this plays directly into the state’s hands, in effect. It also demotivates those who have something to say, knowing how it will be seen — eventually if the society you live in doesn’t want to hear it, you have to disassociate mentally from the society…

    • Mr Webb,

      Given that Mr Knapp has made it his mission to root out racism wherever he finds it – and admittedly he does seem to practice what he preaches – don’t you think you should perhaps emulate his sense of principle and practice what you preach too?

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