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.

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Sean Gabb, Talk on Surveillance, Bratislava, 12th August 2015


INESS podcast s riaditeľom britskej Libertarian Alliance Dr. Seanom Gabbom na tému štátne špehovanie/ INESS podcast episode on state surveillance with Dr. Sean Gabb of Libertarian Alliance (United Kingdom)

Roger C. Hereford reviews this talk as follows:

Another illuminating speech from “Dr. Seanom Gabbom”!

You are correct that the modern threat of a police state is a different one from the classic stereotypes of the mid-20th century. The First World authoritarianism of the early 21st century is less about a conscious imitation of Stalinist regimes and more about the freeing of governments from traditional restraints or accountability. In the information age, they want all the sensitive information they can get, to use as they please.

An especially worrying point you make is the effect that the knowledge of surveillance is likely to have on the national character. As you say, “to be watched is to be controlled”. If people know that their actions are being recorded and are therefore not private, they will naturally modify their behaviour accordingly. The prospect of the free Western European nations becoming populated by obedient conformists, who view individuality of thought and behaviour as a social embarrassment is a thoroughly depressing one.

For that reason, I hope you are right in your essentially optimistic appraisal of the situation we face. When you suggest that ordinary people are able to “watch the watchers” and hold them and their words to account in ways that were impossible even twenty years ago, you highlight an important point. The Internet allows us to fact-check the statements of our rulers, and also to communicate and receive news and information that they would rather we couldn’t. We can film agents of the state in their public duties and post the video on the web.

In a dark and darkening world, the Internet and growing ease of popular communications and information are rays of sunshine that may yet prove to be the saviour of liberty and any kind of civilisation worth having.