On freedom of speech – a response to James Myburgh
Last week, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) terminated its relationship with Politicsweb, an organisation it has partnered with since 2011. The Foundation did so because Politicsweb decided to continue paying for and publishing the articles of Mr David Bullard, despite the latter’s recent unequivocally racist tweet invoking “the k-word”. In South Africa, the “k-word”
means only one thing. Dr James Myburgh, the editor of Politicweb, has defended his position, arguing that Politicsweb should not have its editorial decisions dictated by the FNF, and that to yield to such dictation would upend its right to freedom of speech.
This justification is confused as to what constitutes freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the right of every individual and organisation to give full expression to whatever they might wish to communicate, whether in private or in public. The only speech that is not protected speech in South Africa is hate speech and unlawful defamation.
Freedom of speech is a freedom from the actions of those who would wish to restrain speech, principally - but not exclusively - the state in its various manifestations. As between individuals, there is no positive duty that one has to secure or promote another’s freedom of speech. One is free, but not obliged, to do so. This much is commonplace.
A free press is a central part of what gives life to freedom of expression. It is that noisy, fractious and contested intersection of ideas across diverse media that is the lifeblood of any worthwhile democracy.
There are different ways in which organisations may lend their support to publications.
Some may do so on a content-independent basis; what matters is not the content of a publication but that it contributes to the plurality of speech. Let us imagine a non-profit organisation that promotes free speech in the sense that its objective is to encourage a diversity of voices in public debate. In order to do so, it funds a spectrum of publishing platforms: from those that promote pro- Apartheid ideas to those that promote Stalinist thought. It is clear that there is no particular set of normative values that guides this non-profit organisation; it simply seeks to support a variety of media organisations, regardless of their political persuasion, so as to encourage a plurality of views.
The more usual case, apart from investment in the media for profit, is support for a publication because of the values or political stance that it favours. The FNF is an organisation that lends support on this basis. The Foundation partners with organisations that specifically promote liberal values.
Whilst the FNF might fight for the right of, say, a Stalinist organisation to exist and express its ideas, it would never actively lend financial or other support to a newspaper that considered Stalinism to be a desirable political order.
The FNF enjoyed a partnership with Politicsweb on the basis of a shared aim to promote liberal values. Politicsweb has always positioned itself as a liberal advocacy platform, as its logo
depicting John Stuart Mill makes plain. In Dr Myburgh’s own words, Politicsweb seeks to give ‘liberal organisations and individuals a voice in the public debate’. To do this, Politicsweb selects and pays for articles by writers who, it considers, give expression to the rich variety of liberal thought and opinion. The FNF has supported Politicsweb on the basis of this endeavour for some 10 years.
The FNF has never sought to constrain the editorial freedom of Dr Myburgh in fulfilling the stated objective of Politicsweb. Liberalism encompasses a broad spectrum of ideas, and there are many ways in which liberal thought can be articulated. The Foundation does not seek to dictate a particular variety of liberalism over others. We have never done so, and will never do so. Our role is not to be an arbiter of various forms of liberalism. Nor would the FNF seek to impede debate about liberal ideas by the critics of liberalism.
Those who espouse racism, however, form no part of the liberal debate. Racism is antithetical to each and every form of liberalism. There are many issues that may form part of a liberal debate, but racism is not one of them. And those who hold racist views do not form part of ‘liberal organisations and individuals’ whom Dr Myburgh seeks to ‘give a voice in the public debate’ – the stated aim of Politicsweb.
Politicsweb, nonetheless, is choosing to continue to purchase and publish the articles of an author of an unapologetically racist tweet. Dr Myburgh has elected to stand by Mr Bullard. In doing so, Politicsweb has chosen to deviate from the very purpose – promoting liberal thought – that gave rise to the longstanding association that the FNF has enjoyed with Politicsweb. Politicsweb is of course free to do so, but so too is the FNF at liberty to take the position that if Politicsweb considers racist expression to be a species of acceptable liberal expression, it warrants our support no longer.
Nor is the decision of the FNF to terminate its support of Politicsweb a strike against freedom of speech. Politicsweb is free to continue publishing Mr Bullard and Mr Bullard is free to continue sharing his content with whichever platforms are prepared to publish it. There is no attempt to
‘silence’ anyone. The FNF has supported Politicsweb as a platform for liberal thought and debate. Dr Myburgh considers Mr Bullard ‘liberal-minded’ and a participant in that debate. The FNF profoundly disagrees.
Some have criticised the FNF’s decision on the basis that Politicsweb is a news organisation, and that entails publishing the full spectrum of news and opinion. This is how the media promotes freedom of expression. The FNF must have known this and its decision to terminate its funding of Politicsweb does harm to freedom of expression, so the argument goes.
This criticism is misplaced. Politicsweb does also publish news. However, there are any number of newspapers and aggregators of news, and FNF has no reason to support such value-neutral efforts. Politicsweb would have no distinctive basis to exist if that was its central purpose. The FNF’s support was always predicated on the work that Politicsweb has held out to be its central task: promoting liberal thought and debate.
Dr Myburgh is a fine writer and has been devoted to the work of Politicsweb. Over the years, Politicsweb has greatly enriched South African debate as a place where liberal voices are heard. His decision in respect of Mr Bullard is a most unfortunate deviation from this important endeavour, which he will hopefully come to see as such.
The FNF’s choice does no harm to freedom of speech. But to continue to support Politicsweb under the current circumstances would certainly do harm to liberal thinking and liberal values. It would suggest that accepting a racist’s work for publication is part of liberalism – it is not.
Head of Research and Advocacy Projects, South Africa Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom