The line between freedom of speech and the freedom to incite violence is one of the hardest distinctions to put into practice. Toby Young, however, who has recently created the Free Speech Union, may have a better idea than most.
Two years ago, when Theresa May was still the prime minister of the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party appointed Toby Young as a member of the Board of the Office for Students. Despite it being an unpaid position, Young quickly accepted it, and yet within a few days, he had not only lost that job but four others.
Young suffered from the sordid affliction of conservatism, and because of this, his qualifications were overlooked. Almost as soon as he was appointed, legions of “offence archaeologists” began to excavate through decades of articles—inevitably digging up artifacts that would soon cost him his livelihood.
“They dug up some stuff, took it out of context, and portrayed me as a bigot,” said Young. “It was trial by social media: guilty until proven innocent and, by the way, you’re not going to have a chance to defend yourself. I ended up not only having to step down from the regulator, but also from four other positions, including my day job running an education charity. It was brutal—I lost two stone.”
By appointing Young—who perhaps was even an overqualified candidate—the British Conservative Party had committed the unpardonable sin. They had appointed someone with the exact virtues needed for the position: industry knowledge, a public profile, and, most importantly, outspoken and lucid principles. And yet, it was precisely these qualities that led to Young’s downfall.
Within hours, the platoons of the progressives had trudged through decades of articles and social media posts. At one point, all ten of the Spectator’s most viewed articles in their archive, which dates back to 1828, were authored by Young. As the editor of Spectator noted, “Young’s army of detractors were hard at work.”
Young’s ordeal is not as remote as it may seem. These tactics—owing in part to their efficacy—have begun to seep into democracy itself. Take, for instance, Justin Trudeau’s tactics in the 2019 election, where the Liberal apparatus took the form “of a constant barrage of oppo research deployed against Conservative candidates.”
Mercifully enough for the Conservatives, the state-funded offence excavator, indulgent in its smugness, was retired after Justin Trudeau’s penchant for blackface emerged. Nevertheless, within a few weeks, the Liberal Party had time to craft and exhibit the online transgressions of six separate opposition candidates.
All this has sent an unequivocal message to Conservatives: If you dare oppose the prevailing orthodoxy of the day—or in the case of those Conservative candidates, dare oppose Canada’s natural governing party—you will suffer first public humiliation and then unemployment.
“Free speech has never been in more peril across the Anglosphere than at any time since the Second World War,” said Young. “Why? Because the regressive Left has launched a ferocious attack on free speech and the progressive Left doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to defend it.”
As a result of this, Young has launched the first major revolt against those who no longer value free-speech or ideological diversity. With a group of internationally recognized academics, public intellectuals, and journalists, Young has created the Free Speech Union, aimed at defending those who have exercised their right to free speech. “I want to stop the same thing happening to other people, which is why I’ve set up the union,” said Young.
The Free Speech Union is perhaps the only available means to defend yourself against the tactics of the far-left. If you are a member, the union will mobilize an army of supporters to defend you against outrage mobs. They will also launch counter-petitions, defend you in the media, and provide legal assistance whenever it is reasonably possible.
“We will challenge outrage mobs in a variety of ways,” said Young. “If bullies come after one of our members on social media, we’ll go after them. If the woke witch-finders start a petition demanding that one of our members is fired, we’ll start a counter-petition. If one of our British-based members faces a disciplinary process—or is fired—we’ll give them access to legal advice and, if necessary, help them crowd-fund to pay their costs. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs; its defenders need to band together too.”
Speaking to The Post Millennial, the prolific Canadian editor of Quillette Jonathan Kay commended the ambition of the union. “I hope it works,” he said. Kay, however, did express caution over the capability of the union: “the problem is that if somebody really wants to cancel someone, the pressure points come from within their own professional milieus. The cancellers don’t care if you’re in some kind of free speech union. It would only work if thousands and thousands of people joined it.”
The good news is that the Free Speech Union is well on its way to garnering this support. Speaking about the reception the Union has received, Young said that “it has been very well received by conservatives and by some members of the progressive left.”
One example of this is the Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole, who told The Post Millennial that “free speech is the foundation of a free and democratic society. Conservatives need to stand united against the threat posed by “cancel culture.” The left is trying to intimidate into silence conservatives—and even those on the left who question the most extreme views. This is a real threat that we need to take seriously.”
The Free Speech Union has suffered some criticism from the usual candidates. The regressive Left, for instance, have “done their best to portray it as an organization that’s been set up to protect male, pale and stale conservatives like me from the consequences of hate speech.”
This attempted portrayal may be a difficult task for Young’s army of detractors. So far, the five-person Board of Directors includes a gay man and a woman of colour, making the Free Speech Union, as Young said, “more diverse, in every sense, than the BBC.”
Speaking on the necessity for free speech, Young paraphrased Ira Glasser, the former head of the ACLU: “speech restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like a great weapon when you’ve got your target in sight. But then the wind shifts.”
Combative metaphors aside, it would be more constructive for the regressive left to join the union, or at least not work against it. After all, Young’s detractors proclaim themselves to be liberals. Shouldn’t they commit to a cause that defends the central tenet of liberalism: free speech? To silence any voice is to impoverish the world and our decision-making capacity. The free speech Young is trying to protect is our individual liberty: we negate it at our cost.