...free to think freely


12th November 2022

Is Defamation Free?

William Clouston, leader of the SDP has written an article in Spiked about how he was picketed and libelled by Wokeists at York University recently, where he was invited to speak on Tariff Reform and Economic Regeneration. Although his subject had no reference to Wokeism, he was apparently targeted because the Party also has a policy to which Wokeists object. They therefore picketed the event stating he was a Fascist, a Racist, and a ‘Transphobe.’ The last of those being a made-up term is difficult to define and therefore dispute, but to call the leader of a centre-left party a Fascist, of a party with no specific policies on race a racist, is clearly so inaccurate and pejorative as to amount to defamation in any reasonable person’s understanding of the term. To do so in writing and distribute pamphlets is libel.

Unfortunately, neither Mr Clouston nor his party is likely to be rich enough to mount a libel action. I am a member of his party and have helped to form its policy (on a different issue again) so might feel defamed with him. My opposition to Wokeism is specifically an opposition to intolerance and I certainly would not espouse any intolerant attitude to my fellow human beings.

The invitation to speak at York had been issued by the University’s Free Speech Society and the Wokeists could presumably claim they were simply exercising their right of Free Speech themselves. However, that doesn’t really work. This country has always understood Free Speech, though important to safeguard democracy and full debate, is not absolute or unqualified. Defamation and sedition are not allowed, though the latter is difficult to define and in practice never prosecuted these days. However, as a civil tort, defamation can only be resisted at law by those with substantial means to do so. The recent ‘Wagatha Christie’ case is said to have cost tens of millions of pounds. In an age when people can easily publish anything, whether true or false, on social media free of charge, the need for legal redress and deterrence to falsehood has grown at the same time as the cost of that redress has escalated to the point where only the super-rich can afford it. This is both unjust and dangerous for Truth.

We need to protect people from false vilification and intimidation because these constitute a real danger for the public peace and for those targeted. It is by those processes groups are identified for persecution and if we are to protect minorities against such persecution we must prevent this misuse of Free Speech.

I would therefore call for a legal duty, not just as a civil matter between private individuals, but as a matter of Public Good, to be able to prove anything one says or to make it very clear when what is said is unproven opinion or speculation, so hearers and readers cannot be easily misled and to ensure untruths cannot gain currency without challenge. Free Speech must not be constrained by any ideology or conventional belief, but it also must not be used to mislead or threaten the innocent or against itself to silence opposition.

I know many Free Speech purists who are basically on the same side as me would disagree because they fear controls being misused to silence debate, but I would argue no reasonable person would want freedom to be misused either, any more than they’d want it to be constrained.

We need a cool, rational debate about how to prevent deception without constraining genuine freedom to debate. I believe that is possible if we apply the same kinds of tests in the public sphere the law already applies in the private sphere, namely, that those making claims should be able to demonstrate their veracity or otherwise justify them. That is very different from limiting the citizen’s ability to challenge official misinformation, which is the principal purpose of Free Speech. The government too must be prepared to demonstrate the veracity of its claims if challenged. It’s not about sides. It is, as ever, about evidence.

(This article expresses my opinion as Director of the Diverse Diversity Campaign only and does not represent the viewpoint of any other body or organisation to which I may belong. Other organisations are mentioned in this article for information only and are not responsible for either style or content.)