Any time I wonder what kind of speech the Free Speech Warriors are defending, I’m reminded of the ocean of bad faith in which they so happily swim.
Two or three times a year, the world’s foremost Free Speech Lovers will get together and sign a statement about the state of political and cultural speech in the western world. This usually happens after a western nation – usually in Europe – says something like, “We should have slightly less hate speech directed at marginalized groups.” The warriors perk up as one and say, no, all speech is equally good and bad. How dare you say otherwise. What is a free society without hateful speech meant to endanger marginalized groups?
The Free Speech Brigade this month released some stupid-ass document they’re haughtily calling the Westminster Declaration, which sounds important but definitely isn’t. The declaration was signed by true-blue fascists and folks who had no choice but to become fascists because they saw a transgender person at the coffee shop one time. That includes dudes like bad-faith performance artists Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibi, the newly far-right thinker Richard Dawkins, and brain-poisoned Hollywood types like Oliver Stone and Tim Robbins and John Cleese. And of course Putin-aligned enemies of empire Ed Snowden and Julian Assange.
These people love free speech so much that they refuse to talk about anything else. One would think that if one were so completely obsessed with the freedom of one’s speech, one would be able to easily and quickly identify what sort of speech is being systematically suppressed by the far left or shit libs or evil technocrats working for shadowy Marxist billionaires or whatever boogeyman Taibi and Greenwald have invented. Well, one would be wrong. Read the Westminster Declaration and you will find exactly zero specificity about the suppression of speech in free societies. The signers of the letter have left it up to your imagination.
The Westminster document whines about European regulatory efforts underway that could stem the tide of fascist invective being hurled across social media platforms by people whose politics is based on inflicting pain, intimidating political adversaries, and gaining power specifically to roll back the hard-fought rights gained by women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color (that queer folks and women signed the Westminster Declaration shouldn’t obscure this fact; these people can be fascists too). These people – these well-funded and determined pro-authoritarian, anti-democracy forces – should have unfettered speech in the western world, the free speechers argue. If multicultural democratic republics are as strong as you think they are, the thinking goes, fascist speech will simply fade into the background and pose no threat to so-called free societies. This, of course, is the basis of the bad-faith concept of the Marketplace of Ideas, which, naturally, is horseshit.
The letter holds up 1948's Universal Declaration on Human Rights (they're suddenly into human rights) as a defense of unfettered speech in free nations. The documents' "corollary of the right to free speech is the right to information. In a democracy, no one has a monopoly over what is considered to be true. Rather, truth must be discovered through dialogue and debate – and we cannot discover truth without allowing for the possibility of error."
This is essentially an argument for democracy to devour itself, to use a free society's freedom against itself, to inject harmful and even deadly speech into the democratic experiment and watch it die, then shrug and say, oh well, I guess it was never as strong as we thought. On we go into our fascist future.
Free Speech Lovers Hate Free Speech
The Free Speech Warriors in their fancy little letter reference the right-wing hatchet job known as the Twitter Files – a bad-faith documenting of the federal government monitoring dangerous people online – as a screaming threat to human freedom around the world. This shouldn’t come as a surprise after Elon Musk and the far right leveraged the Twitter Files as never-ending fuel for their bad faith fire. Please ignore that the Westminster Declaration references Musk’s coordination with the regime of far-right Indian dictator Nardendra Modi to censor Pakistani Twitter users as an example of social media companies limiting online speech. Under no circumstances should we recognize that Musk worked hand in hand with Turkish Dictator Tayyip Erdoğan to squelch his opponents’ online speech ahead of a recent election.
Please do not pay any attention to free speech advocate Musk as the world’s preeminent enemy of free speech. And whatever you do, don’t point out that all right-wing politics is merely projection. That would undermine this whole Westminster Declaration shitshow, and we wouldn’t want that.
Even in these extraordinarily bad-faith times, we must sometimes operate in good faith and speak plainly about the right’s actual aims. So who exactly are the Westminster Declaration signers defending in their pompous open letter?
Let’s start with those who deny the Holocaust and other genocides around the world: They want fascist German activists to be able to openly deny that the Holocaust happened with whatever vicious and disgusting propaganda they must use to convince fellow Germans – young, disaffected ones, primarily – that the Jews invented the Holocaust as a means of cultural and political domination, and that Adolf Hitler did nothing wrong.
The free speech folks also want COVID deniers and science skeptics to have no limitations to the lies and half-truths they can spread online like the viruses they appear to love so much. The right’s COVID denialism – fueled largely by the fascist-adjacent wellness industry – cost tens of thousands of American lives in the darkest days of the pandemic. Probably that’s a generous assessment since many COVID deniers with political power – namely governors like Ron DeSantis – made COVID denialism state policy and sacrificed god-knows-how-many Americans to the lib-owning gods. These people, who wilfully and knowingly spread killer disinformation about vaccines and other means to stem the tide of public health threats, should be able to say anything they want at any time, the Westminster brigade argues.
Bad-faith free speech fans use intentionally vague wording to obscure what they really mean and what they really want. They pretend to be concerned about all speech, not just horrific far-right speech designed in a conservative thinktank’s lab to poison the body politick. It doesn’t take much digging to get through that bad-faith exterior though – you’ll notice these free speech lovers have no concern for a biomedical sciences journal editor who was recently fired for complimenting The Onion on the “courage, insight, and moral clarity” in its articles on the Gaza conflict. The folks who signed the Westminster document are fine with the censorship of left-wing views. In fact, that is their entire mission. Their true aims and their real allies are just under the surface, like fat worms drilling into their brains.
The warriors sadly gave away their sordid little game near the end of the Westminster Declaration. They almost got all the way through without accidentally telling the truth.
We recognize that words can sometimes cause offense, but we reject the idea that hurt feelings and discomfort, even if acute, are grounds for censorship. Open discourse is the central pillar of a free society, and is essential for holding governments accountable, empowering vulnerable groups, and reducing the risk of tyranny. Speech protections are not just for views we agree with; we must strenuously protect speech for the views that we most strongly oppose. Only in the public square can these views be heard and properly challenged.
Hurt feelings. Discomfort. Tyranny. These are key words in understanding what they mean. I should be able to hurl invective at a trans person online; I should be able to question why we can’t use racial slurs; I should be able to wonder aloud if women are indeed inferior to men; and if I’m unable to use this speech without public backlash, I am a victim of tyranny.
The game is set up so they cannot lose. It’s why there’s no reason to engage with these people in a good-faith debate. They should be ignored. They should be labeled accurately: Enemies of free speech.
Follow Denny Carter on BlueSky at @cdcarter13.bsky.social and on X at @CDCarter13.