The Politics of Free Speech


3:00 - 4:30-pm

Ivor Crewe Seminar Room

admission free

‘Free speech’ is often poorly-defined, the discourse around it confusing or contradictory. On a ‘thin’ conception, free speech is the absence of coercive restrictions. But phenomena which don’t seem like free speech violations on this conception – e.g. ‘no platforming’; non-violent protest – are routinely held up as evidence that free speech is under threat. To compound the paradox, these practices are increasingly met with interventions that do seem to violate free speech in the thin sense – e.g. restrictions on protest via government sanctions against public bodies. Dr Lorna Finlayson argues that a thin conception of freedom of speech fails to take due account of the relationship between speech and power. However, a ‘thick’ conception of free speech complicates things, expanding the range of phenomena that can count as potentially silencing, and undermining the cherished separation between the defence of free speech and the evaluation of speech’s content.

Free speech has been argued about and discussed by students and staff at the University of Essex since May 1968, when students interrupted a lecture by Dr Inch from Porton Down, the government’s chemical and biological research centre, because of their concerns about the use of chemical weapons such as Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.


Dr Lorna Finlayson is a lecturer in Philosophy in the School of Philosophy and Art History (Essex). She is the author of The Political Is Political: conformity and the illusion of dissent in contemporary political philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), and An Introduction to Feminism (CUP 2016). She has interests in political philosophy and its methodology, critical theory and theories of ideology, feminist philosophy, philosophy of social science, and Arabic philosophy.

Image: Mary Bishop, c1976. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection