At what point does refusing to give someone a platform to speak become denying their freedom of expression rather than exercising yours? And when is ensuring someone else has the freedom to speak different from being compelled to provide a platform for speech?

Freedom of speech is a vital hallmark of a democratic society. It thrives not on laws and regulation but on a culture of civility and what the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called the dignity of difference”. 

The Government has recently confirmed that it is to appoint a free-speech champion’ for English universities, to promote freedom of speech on campuses and foster environments where people can robustly disagree with views, opinions and beliefs. There will also be a legal duty on universities and students’ unions to take steps to ensure that legal free speech is secured.

Within an academic environment, this is especially important; academic research and publication should not be restricted by popularity contests or constrained by what is thought should be the answer. However, while the intentions are important, the mechanisms for enforcing it are heavy-handed and fail to cultivate a culture of free speech. 


This echoes the wider debate about free speech and no-platforming: when you get to a situation where you require new laws and the creation of official bodies it is already an indication of the upwards struggle ahead. 

Free speech online

The decision by social media companies to more rigorously censor certain posts and account holders has also brought to the fore questions around the regulation of freedom of speech. Donald Trump was permanently banned from Twitter following the 6 January attacks on Capitol Hill over risks his posts could incite criminal activity, which sparked much debate about free speech. 

Many deemed Twitter’s decision reasonable, but many accused the social network company of inconsistency, because, for instance, no such action was taken to stop the Chinese Government using Twitter in its actions against the Uighur Muslims.

Social media platforms are not public spaces, as much as we treat them as such. They are private companies with significant discretion in who they allow to have a platform. In a similar way that I am not entitled to a column in my magazine of choice or a book contract with an international publisher, I only have a platform through social media outlets because they choose to allow it. 

In physical terms, this is similar to the town centres which we think of as public spaces but are actually private land and therefore subject to the rules of the company owning the land, even if they permit public access. So it seems as though you have the freedom to do as you wish until they decide to enforce their will. 

"There is a role for legal protections to both guarantee freedom of speech and to guard against compelled speech; however, these cannot be all that is relied upon to foster free speech in a free society."

Promoting free speech, resisting compelled speech

While it can seem necessary to stand up against private companies using their power to silence unpopular views or those they do not like, it is vital we recognise the importance of protecting the freedom for organisations to limit whose voice they amplify. 

Equality laws in the UK mean that companies cannot restrict the provision of services because of certain protected characteristics, which includes age, race, sexuality, and religion or belief. The Asher’s bakery case was an important restatement that a company cannot be forced to publish political statements with which they disagree – in this case a campaign slogan promoting same-sex marriage. 

This case drew an important distinction between the person being served and the message they wanted to promote through the product. Likewise, a Christian magazine has wide discretion over what articles it chooses to publish and which authors they provide a platform to. Just because someone isn’t publishing your opinions doesn’t mean you are being silenced. There is a role for legal protections to both guarantee freedom of speech and to guard against compelled speech; however, these cannot be all that is relied upon to foster free speech in a free society. 

There is a cumulative impact in quasi-public spaces – such as social media platforms – when certain views are increasingly frowned upon and likely to be criticised and companies placed under pressure to restrict their airing. Yes, those articulating views are not being banned from articulating them, but a circle of accepted speech’ is being defined and certain views are placed outside of it. 

This is damaging for a free society even if it is not technically an illegal restriction on free speech. The places where we connect with others should tolerate a wide variety of different opinions, views and beliefs, even those we cherish dearly and hold to passionately. If we cannot accommodate such diversity, and if we require laws and official bodies to regulate and guarantee it, we have a far weaker society for it. 

It is vital that we speak with grace at all times, and especially so when we know that what we are saying is likely to challenge contemporary values or be widely disagreed with. Having divergent views is not an excuse to be disagreeable. While we see the potential threat of hate crime legislation as being used as a way of silencing traditional Christian teaching, and there are many other challenges on the horizon, our speech must never be hateful. And perhaps before we seek to speak and confidently exercise our freedom to do so, we should listen.