The responsibility of free speech

In his open letter published in Cherwell, Jacob Williams, editor of the ‘No Offence’ magazine, claims to be a champion of ‘Britain’s future as a free country’. Despite its ban from next week’s Freshers’ Fair, Williams upholds the magazine against the ‘stupid and dogmatic’ Oxford University Student Union (OUSU). In his words, OUSU are ‘the real bigots on campus… who hound and vilify people.’

‘No Offence’, however, is not a neutral publication. Through articles justifying colonial rule and graphically describing the abortion of 12 week foetuses, Williams and his writers use the veil of the struggle for free speech to voice abhorrence. In his immature publication of all the extremes of free speech, Williams has forgotten that ‘Britain’s future as a free country’ depends on everyone’s right to express their views free from intimidation.  We should be free from the frankly disgusting content of ‘No Offence’.

Why, then, has Cherwell decided to publish Williams’ letter? Here at Cherwell, we do support open debate, and this means the open demolition of the arguments voiced in ‘No Offence’. We feel that OUSU has made a mistake by failing to let the magazine be shown up for the nonsense it contains at the Freshers’ Fair. By banning ‘No Offence’, OUSU has given students like Williams the biggest coup they could have hoped for: a chance to be the heroes of free speech, without the scrutiny of public debate. Such scrutiny would surely expose the magazine’s flawed principles.

You might ask, what is so bad about ‘No Offence’? Cherwell has received a preview of the magazine and its contents, as expected, are disappointing. So long as this debate rages without public exposure of this extremely low quality publication, Williams can pretend that he is the victim of a great injustice. Instead, publishing horrifically unbalanced articles that describe ‘Rhodesia: The End of a Great Country’, without mention of the appalling racism of the regime, the magazine is exposed as the fraud it is. The bullying tone of the magazine’s articles is made worse by the terrible quality of its writing. Why on earth should we take ‘No Offence’ seriously when it climaxes with an article entitled ‘Finger Me Like One of your French Fries’?

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Williams’ argument ultimately falls down when we consider the responsibilities of freedom of speech. Yes, Williams can exaggeratedly call for an escape from the ‘censorious sect of secular zealots’, but no, we should not let him and his writers go unchallenged. With freedoms of speech we have a responsibility to make sure that good ideas are developed and bad ideas demolished. We have a responsibility to make sure that no one is intimidated by someone else’s free speech to the point that they are scared to paricipate in debate. Most of all, we have a responsibility to see that articles designed only to offend and intimidate are shown up for what they really are.