WHEN I was a young law student, some 30 years ago, the free speech advocates I admired were the civil liberties lawyers of the centre-left. Their target was the Thatcher government. Whether her ministers were chasing Peter Wright through the world’s courts, seeking to suppress his lurid memoir, Spycatcher, or whether they were busying themselves bossing the BBC not to broadcast the voices of Sinn Fein politicians at the same time the screens showed their mouths moving, the enemy of free speech was authoritarian government of the centre-right.

Today, free speech advocates tend to be on the libertarian right and their target is not government, but the growing armies of social warriors who, convinced of their own self-righteousness, no longer wish to hear the other side. Not for them the old-fashioned liberal values of pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness. Rather, speech with which the woke generation disagrees should apparently be silenced not tolerated, censored rather than countered, cancelled rather than engaged with.

It wasn’t the state or the government that hounded Professor Kathleen Stock out of her job as a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, when she wrote a book daring to challenge, from an avowedly feminist perspective, modish fads in the debate about transgender identity.

And last week, it wasn’t the state or the government that protested about cinema chains showing The Lady of Heaven, a movie which tells a story about Lady Fatima, daughter of the prophet Mohammed. In the light of the protests, Cineworld cancelled all its showings of the film, nationwide. It was thinking of the “safety” of its staff and its customers, said Cineworld.

The hounding of Kathleen Stock and the cancelling of The Lady of Heaven are far from the only examples of the threat to free speech we see in modern-day Britain, but they are typical of the form it takes. A mob bays for the removal – or for the silencing – of an individual person or work of art because it feels offended by what that person or work of art is claimed to have said. That the threat to free speech is not coming from any government should not lessen our sense of outrage that such speech is being censored.

Back when I was a law student, it was the theocratic state of Iran that imposed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for writing his novel the Satanic Verses. Now it is 120,000 names on a petition that causes a cinema chain to cancel a film. Rushdie was placed under a death sentence and he spent many years in hiding, under police protection. As far as I know no such fate has befallen either Professor Stock or the makers of The Lady of Heaven.

Their lives may not be at risk, but the attacks on their speech are every bit as severe as was the attack on Salman Rushdie's. Blasphemy was abolished as a criminal offence in England in 2008 and in Scotland in 2021. In the past that offence was much in evidence as clerics, missionaries, and the self-appointed do-gooding regulators of public morality took to the courts to have works they disliked banned and authors jailed (or worse – blasphemy was a capital offence in Scots law; those convicted of it could be sentenced to death). Quite rightly, there was much cheering when this obsolete and long-since past its sell-by date offence was finally revoked in Scotland last year.

Yet here we are, just one year later, not with Christian zealots but with Muslims calling for the banning of a movie and – worse – one of the country’s leading cinema chains caving in to those calls, pulling the film from its screens. Dear reader, next time you go to the movies, perhaps think twice before giving Cineworld your custom?

If freedom of speech is under threat from the rise of a new censoriousness in the United Kingdom, what if anything should our governments be doing about it?

In London, UK ministers are steering through the Westminster parliament a Bill which will impose on universities and student unions in England legal duties to ensure that freedom of speech is safeguarded on campus. Whether this will prevent a repeat in the future of what happened to Professor Stock at Sussex remains very much to be seen.

At the same time, UK ministers have indicated that they wish to see legal protections of free speech enhanced generally – and not only on campus – as part of their review of the Human Rights Act. Quite what form this may take is as yet unclear. It is not obvious that the answer to a non-governmental threat to speech is more legislation, or more powers for the government.

I’m not at all sure I would want to see Cineworld legally compelled to screen any particular movie. “Compelled speech” (where the state requires you to express yourself in a certain manner) is as toxic a risk to true freedom of speech as were the old legal offences such as blasphemy that criminalised forms of speech. The government should not be telling us what we cannot say but, at the same time, neither should it generally be in the business of telling us what we must say.

The Americans talk a lot about the marketplace of ideas. And, whilst they have the world’s most robust free speech laws in the famous First Amendment to the US Constitution, they leave a great deal of the regulation of free speech to the market. And, despite one’s outrage and despair at Cineworld’s craven decision last week, so should we. There is no need for legislation to tell cinema chains that they must show this film or that. But there is a growing need for consumers and customers to keep a keen eye on the extent to which cinema chains care about the artistic freedoms of the country’s film-makers.

It will be a long time before I darken the doors of a Cineworld multiplex again.

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