Sometimes the profane, inarticulate and wrong have to be heard. We don’t, however, have to take them seriously or at any cost. Frances Coppola explains.
GB News has sacked the actor Laurence Fox for making hideously sexist remarks about the New Statesman journalist, Ava Evans. It has also sacked Calvin Robinson for defending Laurence Fox.
Fox and Robinson have both condemned the decision. In a video released in anticipation of his dismissal, Fox complained that GB news had failed to “stand up and defend free speech”, and called it “the home of cancel culture”. And on social media, Robinson said: “How long can a station keep calling itself ‘the home of free speech’ when it continues to engage in cancel culture?”
This raises a fundamental question. What are the limits to free speech? Should those on the receiving end of misogynistic, homophobic, racist or transphobic comments simply grin and bear it, on the grounds that free speech is too important to restrict? What, if any, consequences should there be for those who exercise their right to free speech in a way that distresses or harms others?
The right to free speech is precious. Without it, political opposition becomes impossible; intolerance has free rein, and with that comes harsh repression of people who express dissenting or minority views. In democratic countries, therefore, freedom of speech is strongly protected. It is recognised as a human right, and in many countries has constitutional protection. For example, in the US, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to free speech. In the UK, which has no written constitution, the right to free speech is guaranteed by section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 and Article 9(1) of the European Conventionon Human Rights.
People whose views are offensive to a mainstream audience are being denied a platform, driven out of employment, and, some suspect, denied access to essential facilities such as bank accounts.
Some people think that the right to free speech is being watered down. People whose views are offensive to a mainstream audience are being denied a platform, driven out of employment, and, some suspect, denied access to essential facilities such as bank accounts. GB News is part of a movement that aims to end what it calls cancel culture and re-establish the right to free speech, or what perhaps would be better termed the right to offend.
They may have a point. Freedom of speech does require people to have pretty thick skins, and perhaps people have become over-quick to cry foul when someone offends them. The right to express a belief is protected, but so too is the right to laugh at that belief. There’s no right not to be insulted or offended. There’s also no right to be listened to or taken seriously.
But I’m not sure the free speech advocates are looking in the right direction. One particularly important aspect of freedom of speech is the right to protest, and that is under serious attack. The human rights group, Liberty, has launched legal action against the Home Secretary for enacting anti-protest legislation that Parliament refused to pass. And it was disturbing to see, at the Conservative Party conference, a senior party member being removed from the conference by the police for quiet heckling during the Home Secretary’s speech. We should worry about these attacks on freedom of speech.
Some people have been unfairly deprived of work because of their publicly-expressed views. In 2021, Maya Forstater sued her former employer for discrimination and victimisation after it sacked her for expressing “gender critical” views both at work and on social media. In a landmark judgment, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that her views were “worthy of respect in a democratic society” (WORIADS). The tribunal said that although Forstater’s views would be offensive to some and could result in harassment of trans people, her right to express them was protected by European and UK law. Forstater went on to win her case for discrimination.
Since then, other people whose publicly-expressed views have cost them work have won discrimination cases, notably the barrister, Allison Bailey, whose chambers had downgraded her and denied her work because of the “gender-critical” views she expressed on social media.
Employers are legally obliged to provide safe working environments for trans people, which might reasonably mean restricting the right to free speech of other employees while at work.
But these successes do not mean the right to free speech is unlimited. Forstater’s tribunal warned that she could not “misgender” trans people with impunity, and reminded her that trans people are themselves protected from discrimination and harassment. They also observed that employers are legally obliged to provide safe working environments for trans people, which might reasonably mean restricting the right to free speech of other employees while at work.
And not everyone has won their case. Dr. David Mackereth thought his Christian beliefs gave him the right to refuse to use the preferred pronouns of trans people attending for Department of Work and Pensions health and disability assessments. The employment tribunal thought otherwise.
People are expected to exercise the right to free speech responsibly and with due regard to the rights of others. The law doesn’t protect people from the consequences of behaving irresponsibly and causing distress and harm to other people. If someone harasses, victimises or discriminates against people with protected characteristics (for example black people, gay people, women, people with disabilities), those people can sue them. If someone brings their employer into disrepute, drives away customers, or makes the working environment uncomfortable for other employees, the employer can sack them. And if someone is offensive to the staff of a bank, the bank can close their account. In its recent investigation of bank account closures, the FCA found some banks that had ostensibly closed accounts because of the customers’ “political or other views” had in reality done so because the customers had racially abused the staff.
And this brings me back to Fox and Robinson. Fox’s remarks were highly offensive as well as deeply misogynist. Instead of critiquing what Ava Evans had said, he had reduced her to a sex object, judging her worth by whether a “self-respecting man” would want to have sex with her. But the problem is not so much what Fox said as where he said it. Had he made these remarks privately to a friend in the pub, they would not have mattered. But he said them to GB News’s audience. Clips of his comments circulated on social media. They were reported in other press outlets. They were heard, or read, by millions of people. And they were influential.
The misogyny of Russell Brand and Andrew Tate was appalling not merely because of the damage they did to the women they abused, but because of the horde of young men who now think abusing women is cool.
When a high-profile man like Laurence Fox publicly abuses women, he tacitly gives permission to other men and boys to do likewise. The misogyny of Russell Brand and Andrew Tate was appalling not merely because of the damage they did to the women they abused, but because of the horde of young men who now think abusing women is cool. Fox’s comments, and Robinson’s endorsement of them, fed into and reinforced this toxic belief system. In these circumstances, sacking Fox and Robinson was not “cancel culture”; it was damage limitation.
Fox’s comments had another unfortunate effect too. He said in his video that he was angry about comments Evans had made about men’s mental health, which he felt were dismissive of a very serious issue. We do need to have a conversation about men’s mental health: shockingly, suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 50. But we cannot have that conversation while men like Fox and Robinson feed a culture of toxic misogynism that renders women unsafe on the streets, at work and in their own homes.
Precious though it is, the right to free speech is not more important than the safety of women and minorities. When free speech is allowed to cross the line into abuse, we no longer have freedom.