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13 September

Support free speech and you must support the right to criticise the monarchy

If the Queen was custodian of a free society, we should defend the right to protest against the institution she represents.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Not everyone has participated in celebrating the life and mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Some have vocally dissented, and for this they have been punished. A young woman in Edinburgh was arrested for holding a sign that said “f*** imperialism abolish monarchy”. A protester in London holding a sign saying “Not my King” was led away by police. A man named Symon Hill was arrested (and then de-arrested) in Oxford after shouting “who elected him?” in a royal procession celebrating King Charles III. The former footballer Trevor Sinclair has been suspended by his employer TalkRadio for tweeting “Racism was outlawed in England in the 60s & it’s been allowed to thrive so why should black & brown mourn!! #queen.”

I don’t support abolishing the monarchy, and disagree strongly with those who argue or imply that anyone sad about the death of the Queen is a defender of empire and oppression, but that is not the point. This is a case of freedom of expression.

Freedom of speech is easier to defend in theory than in practice. Many of us are familiar with, and easily invoke, the famous quotes about free speech. The George Orwell one: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.” The John Stuart Mill one: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs.” And the Voltaire one (which he didn’t actually say): “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

But in practice the defence of free speech is harder to sustain. There are viewpoints so offensive every culture has laws and social norms that curtail them: we have hate speech laws; other cultures have blasphemy laws. We all have taboos, and in times of great sensitivity, such as the death of the Queen, the desire to strenuously enforce them is understandable – but that doesn’t make it right. The liberal case for free speech still stands. 

The goal for liberals is not absolute free speech but pushing the boundaries of what can be expressed in a society as far as possible, and making it the burden of those who want to ban offensive speech or severely punish those who express it to offer a sufficient justification for doing so. In the case of arresting anti-monarchy protesters, or in suspending from their jobs those who think the royal family is a bastion of oppression, no strong claims for suppressing these forms of expressions have been provided.

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Republicanism is a minority view in Britain, but it is still a view. And if the claim that we live in a genuinely tolerant and liberal society is true, it needs to be consistently true, not just mouthed as a platitude. The legacy of the Queen is not so brittle that anyone who deviates from the accepted orthodoxy should be harassed by the police or kicked out of civil society. Even if her legacy were so brittle that wouldn’t make the suppression of free speech any more right. If you believe the Queen was a custodian of a free society, you should also defend the rights of those who oppose the institution she represented.

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[See also: Are these performative tributes really “what she would have wanted”?]

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