Friday, 7 May 2021

The Free Speech Coalition is no more

** Guest post by Terry Verhoeven **

The Free Speech Coalition has been something of a cocoon, it turns out. What emerged this week from the chrysalis is something called the Free Speech Union. 

The former organism, founded spontaneously in the wake of several speakers being 'cancelled,' has now been reborn as the latter. The Free Speech Union appears on its surface to be good for this country, professing to stand for the right to free speech, and wanting to fight cancel culture. Sounds encouraging. But beware. 

It turns out that the word "Union" is being used literally. In its email announcing the emergence of the new entity, the FSU made a point of explaining why it is has formed into a real union, rather than remaining a coalition: the union model has "advantages,"  says the email, which include (in their words):
  • "the right to access employer’s property to conduct union business. The next time Massey University bans Don Brash or Martin Bradbury because what they might say is ‘unsafe’ – we may organise a union event on campus. That could include giving those they want to de-platform the legal right to enter as delegates of the Union.
  • "employers can’t stop people from joining our union – if they do, they’ll be in breach of employment law. We know of instances where universities have scolded academics for their public support of free speech / our campaign. If they try to do that with the Free Speech Union, they’ll be breaching employment law." [Emphasis in the original.]
Get that? Their explicit reason for a union model being adopted is, in the name of upholding “free speech," to trespass on and thus violate the property rights of employers! 

This is bizarre. As I and Peter have argued here many times, the only means by which to implement all rights in a compossible* manner, including the right to free speech, is to recognise property rights. Put simply, he who owns the microphone (or the hall) gets to choose who uses it. Understand this, and you understand that free speech itself is also at root a property-rights issue.   

The only alternative to implementing rights via property claims is a chaos of clashing claims to "rights." Determining, midst this chaos, whose claims are to be respected (and whose violated) results inexorably in a system of political pull in which all freedom is eventually lost. Violate property rights, the foundational right which supports the implementation of all others, and one necessarily violates all those rights, including the right to free speech.

The crux of the issue is this. Where property exists, it is the right of the property owner themselves to decide what can and cannot be said on or with their property. That's an absolute. The alternative is to legalise the hijacking of people’s property to spout ideas with which the property owner disagrees or, worse, actively undermines their own values and interests. Yet this is the direction the former Free Speech Coalition is now taking in its fight for “free speech,” i.e., to undermine the very foundations of its stated cause.

As I said: bizarre.

The former Coalition intends to begin its proposed legal violations of property rights on campuses and in so-called "public" venues, setting out explicitly to hamstring the administrators and agents of those properties -- starting precisely at the point that anti-free speech activists found a crevice in the system, and for similar reasons. But the next logical step (especially from those so blind to the difference between public and private) would be to hamstring private-property owners and to force upon them speech with which they disagree, to be propounded on or with their property. The logic is as inevitable as it is disturbing.

I donated to the Free Speech Coalition after it announced that it would be fighting the looming hate-speech legislation, and sent them a couple of emails urging that they recognise property rights as the sole means by which to implement free speech. No one even bothered replying to me. That silence speaks volumes.

What the new Free Speech Union seems to stand for then is not free speech, as you'd expect them to, but being provided a free platform for speech. These are not the same, and it's not just a minor debating point. Anyone who supports  free speech must support the sanctity of property rights. Conversely, whatever they may say otherwise, anyone who does not support the sanctity of property rights is not in truth a supporter of free speech. For this reason, I urge you to be circumspect about giving the so-called Free Speech Union your support. This bug could be dangerous.


Terry Verhoeven is Principal of the Rights Institute (an initiative) and author of the book Rights: Rediscovering Our Means to Liberty



  1. I'm wondering though, is this in the same category as Ayn Rand accepting welfare payments. The justification for that is that you can be against welfare payments in principle, but there's no point making a martyr of yourself by being the only person who doesn't take them to get some of their taxes back.

    In this context, I would have thought using the powers granted to "unions" is only likely to affect public institutions such as universities, who have various powers to suppress free speech. Is this not fighting fire with fire, using some of the state's own (mildly unjust) laws against them?

    1. Mark, it to be even close to being in the same category, FSU would need to unequivocally condemn universities and public venues being forcefully funded, and rule out ever using their union powers on private businesses. They aren’t doing either.

    2. I agree that’s what an Objectivist with a perfect understanding of the principles would do.

    3. Granting that what you suggest is what they ideally should do, do you think the world is a worse place by:
      a) doing nothing, or
      b) doing what they’ve done?

    4. What is better: a) no argument, or b) a bad argument?

  2. I think that it would have more in common with Ayn Rand's proposal in "Fairness Doctrine for Education".

    1. c papen, yes, you are right. But those invoking the doctrine must denounce and condemn public funding of airwaves, universities and public facilities, and rule out applying the doctrine to private businesses, for it to become their right to invoke.

  3. Are you not missing the context? The FSU is not proposing to establish these laws. They are simply planning to use the laws that already exist, against the people who established them. The context isn’t a case of Existing rights that they are trying to remove. The rights already have been removed. They are non-existent.

    1. I don't understand what you mean. Rights cannot be "removed" or made "non-existant", they are either upheld or they are violated. Rights pre-exist our identification of them. The FSU plans to violate property rights by forcing their way onto employers' property under the auspices of being a union.

    2. Richard, rights can't be removed or become non-existent. They can only be violated. If someone violates your rights, does that give you license to violate the rights of others?

    3. I’m talking about the difference between moral and political. In a dictatorship you certainly have natural rights, but they don’t exist politically. By utilising a law that enables them to speak on campus, whose natural rights are they specifically violating? I don’t think you can point to any victim. Outside of that context, though, it would be an entirely different matter. If they tried it on private businesses they would be what they claim to oppose.

    4. I mean politically/institutionally exist. Is there a slippery slope in Nth Korea? There is only an uphill slope, a very steep one. In utilising an existing law in order to speak on campus, I don't think you can actually point to a victim? I can't see one. If they targeted a private business it would be another matter, but not a matter of a slippery slope. The institutional right is already gone.


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