The row engulfing a school in Batley, West Yorkshire, has exposed so much about current attitudes to free speech. A teacher showed his year nine class Islamophobic cartoons first published in the reactionary French magazine Charlie Hebdo. 

Parents and members of the local community in Batley organised protests at the school, where two-thirds of pupils are from a Muslim background. Cue a deluge of fake outrage from Tory ministers and the predictable columnists and radio show hosts. They make careers from distorting ideas of free speech to legitimise their sacred right to make big bucks by feeding prejudices and offending oppressed people. 

Tory education secretary Gavin Williamson condemned the protests in Batley, saying schools must be free to “show challenging and controversial materials” in class. This is the same Gavin Williamson who spent last September—when coronavirus was running rampant through classrooms—banning schools from using “anti-capitalist” teaching materials. 

Williamson’s “freedom of speech” is exclusively the freedom to humiliate and belittle the oppressed. It does not extend to the right to question or explore the causes of that oppression.

The context for the protests at Batley school is one of institutional racism in our education system. Muslim children have been referred to Prevent “counter-terror” programme officials for talking about playing Fortnite, for using the phrase “eco-terrorist” in a lesson on the environment and for drawing a cucumber. Which, when written by a four-year old, apparently looked like “cooker bomb”. Researchers have identified the “chilling effect” of Prevent, which silences Muslim school children. 

A series of reports in the Guardian newspaper have highlighted the depth of this institutional racism. Today some 683 police officers are deployed in our schools. They have the power to stop and search pupils suspected of being gang members, despite research which shows this disproportionately criminalises ethnic minority children. 

Around 95 percent of black and Asian pupils report hearing racist language at school, and 50 percent believed racism is the most significant barrier to academic achievement. Exclusion rates for black Caribbean pupils are at least five times higher than for their white friends. Black boys with special needs are over 150 times more likely to be excluded than white girls with no special needs. 

Last September Williamson was asked about the decolonisation of the curriculum—surely a brilliant opportunity to teach ‘challenging and controversial materials”. He closed down the debate, saying, “We mustn’t forget that in this nation, we have an incredibly rich history. And we should be incredibly proud of our history because time and time and time again, this country has made a difference and changed things for the better right around the world.” 

Such a blatantly distorted view of empire would have been rejected by historians even at the height of Victorian empire-building. Today it is nothing but wilfully ignorant bigotry. It rests on the long-discredited idea of a “white man’s burden”—in which men with pith helmets unleashed mass violence on communities around the world, stole their wealth and called it bringing civilisation.  

Appeals to free speech nestle at the heart of the Department for Education’s agenda. Last month, it issued a directive about free speech in England’s campuses, complete with a forward by Williamson. In just a few short paragraphs, he reveals the cliched, reactionary tropes which pass for serious thinking within the ranks of this intellectually bankrupt government.

Williamson denounces the “creeping culture of censorship” infecting English universities which are increasingly privileging “emotional safety” over free speech. The intellectual source for this astounding statement is provided by Jonathon Haidt. Haidt’s book, Coddling of the American Mind, is the latest in long line of books which aim to reverse the gains made by oppressed groups in the 1960s. 

Haidt’s big idea is that student demands for social justice, with their “safe spaces”, intersectionality theories and call-out culture, are not justifiable attempts to combat historic inequalities. Rather, they are the expression of tricks of the mind which can be cured by cognitive behaviour therapy. Feeling marginalised or threatened? Then put down your Black Lives Matter and Reclaim These  Streets placards and get yourself some therapy. This analysis reframes debates about challenging the racism and sexism inherent in the institutions of capitalism to focus on preparing individuals to accept those institutions.

This government, Williamson assures us, stands against “cancel culture” and on the side of “Enlightenment values”. Enlightenment values were not generated by erudite discussion in academia. They emerged in opposition to the “divine rights” of kings and their repressive institutions. Free speech was raised as a demand in opposition to the established church, with its apparatus of terror, mutilation and execution. 

Gavin Williamson quotes the great poet John Milton—a literary tactic which often serves to cloak mediocrity in the mantel of intellectual grandeur. Williamson chooses a line from Milton’s famous defence of free speech, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” He associates himself with Milton’s demand for freedom, adding, “Today, let the government answer that cry. Let Milton’s freedom ring out across our universities.”  Nothing quite like introducing fines for breach of the free speech duty to get that freedom cry ringing out. 

Williamson may not be aware of it, but John Milton was a leading figure in the English Revolution of the 1640s, widely known as the civil war between King Charles I and parliament. In 1641, the Star Chamber court was abolished and with it went all the royal regime’s punitive licensing restrictions. As the revolution gathered pace a flood of pamphlets, tracts and publications hit the streets of radical London. The city became, in the words of Milton, a “mansion house of liberty”.

Two years later, the trading and landed interests on the parliamentary side, led by the dukes of Essex and of Manchester, became fearful of the power of the people’s demands for their own rights. They reintroduced a licensing act which effectively meant government censorship. It was this that provoked Milton’s great demand for freedom of speech. 

When King Charles I was executed on 31 January 1649, Milton published his great pamphlet, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a defence of regicide and revolution. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Milton only just escaped the gallows for his role in defending the execution of a king. Let’s hope Williamson’s defence of free speech extends to this aspect of Milton’s writings.

The most famous declarations Enlightenment values are the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens. Both declarations were a product of revolutions which overthrew the colonial rule of the English monarchy and the domestic rule of the French monarchy. 

These revolutions propelled the rising capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, into power. They legitimised their rule by appeals to universal rights and freedoms, which in practise excluded women, black people and indigenous Americans. There was a massive contradiction between the aspiration to universal rights and the exclusion of the majority from those rights. 

“Free speech,” Williamson tells us, “is the cornerstone of a free and liberal society.” He invokes the long-discredited idea that capitalism creates a marketplace for ideas, which circulate as freely as commodities and can be picked up and exchanged at will. There is no free market for ideas. The rich own the media and those in power have repeatedly repressed the free speech of the majority. 

The great French Revolution inspired English radicals but their attempts to explore the Enlightenment values of “liberty, equality and fraternity” were greeted with violent repression. Habeas Corpus—the right to appeal against detention without trial—was suspended, meetings of over 50 people banned, and taxes were imposed on publications. 

Treason was redefined to include not only actions, but spoken and written words. This meant that radicals risked their lives to speak freely against the monarchy. 

In 1792, shoe-maker Thomas Hardy founded the radical London Corresponding Society, which included the great abolitionist Olaudah Equiano among its members. In May 1794, Hardy was charged with treason. While he was in prison, his house was attacked by a Church and King mob and his wife, Lydia, suffered a miscarriage and died before he was acquitted in November.  

Brothers Leigh and John Hunt were friends of radical writers Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. In 1808 they launched a radical newspaper, The Examiner. On the every front page, Hunt reminded readers that half the price of the paper was the government’s stamp duty, a “tax on knowledge”. In 1812, Leigh and John were arrested for an article which dared to criticise the reviled Prince Regent. They served two years in prison.

The murder of unarmed protesters in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1819 became known as the Peterloo Massacre, a name coined by local journalist James Wroe. Wroe paid a high price for his joke. His radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer, was closed down and he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for seditious libel.

In the wake of Peterloo, parliament passed the notorious Six Acts which banned large meetings and gagged radical newspapers. It became a crime to incite hatred against the government. Working class radicals defied these laws. 

Richard Carlile was one of the speakers in St Peter’s Fields. He ignored the stamp duty and continued to publish his radical anti-monarchist paper, The Republican. Carlile was sentenced to six years in prison. His wife, Jane, continued to publish The Republican, until she too was arrested. She gave birth in prison. Then Richard’s sister, Mary Anne Carlile took over until she too was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. 

Another radical publisher, Susannah Wright, then took over publishing The Republican. She too was arrested. She defended herself in court, which was unheard of for a woman, and she did it while holding her baby and insisting on breaks to breast feed. She spent 18 months in Coldbath Fields prison, Clerkenwell.  

The battle for an unstamped press was a key element of radical and working class politics throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Hundreds of principled men and women went to prison to defend their right to publish radical papers—it was due to their courage and determination that the idea of a free press was founded.  

The stamp duty was repealed in 1855, but this did not mean British ruling class had become tolerant of free speech. In 1877, socialist Annie Besant and secularist Charles Bradlaugh published the Fruits of Philosophy, a tract which advocated birth control. The two were prosecuted for blasphemy. They were both acquitted. In the publicity which followed the trial, Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton. Besant lost custody of her daughter Mabel. But she was unbowed and threw herself into the campaign for free speech, which erupted in London in 1887. 

Increasingly militant demonstrations of unemployed workers from London’s East End began to gather in Trafalgar Square where they mingled with protesters against British repression of Irish nationalists. When the police banned the gatherings, socialist organisations and Irish groups called for a mass protest for free speech on 13 November. Socialists including Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx, and William Morris lead the protesters and spoke to the crowds. 

Ten thousand marchers reached Trafalgar Square, where they were met by police truncheons, mounted police charges and infantry with drawn bayonets, In what became known as “Blood Sunday”, hundreds were injured, including Eleanor Marx, and three died. 

Protests erupted again the following Sunday. A young clerk, Alfred Linnell, was trampled by a police horse and died of his injuries. Morris gave the speech at Linnell’s huge funeral procession. Morris denounced the police’s attempts to turn London into a “huge prison”. It was socialists who organised the defiance of police brutality to defend free speech on London’s streets. 

Gavin Williamson wants to enforce the rights of bigots to speak while his government’s police bill simultaneously seeks to curtail our right to protest. The right to free speech means little if it cannot be exercised collectively on the streets. The bill will give the home secretary the right to ban the very mass protest movements which secured our right to organise in trade unions, to vote, to publish socialist papers, and to defend our communities from racism and fascism. 

Socialists have always defended free speech—and fought hard to make it a reality for the excluded and oppressed. But we know our rights have always depended on our collective power to defend them, to break unjust laws, and to assert our rights not just to speak, but to act and to bring about real change.