ADF International

Free to Disagree? Free Speech in the Age of ‘Cancel Culture’ and ‘Hate Speech’ Laws

Between 1929 and 1939, the 20th century’s ‘indispensable man’ was cast out into what has been called his ‘wilderness years’. The man who would—more than any other—pull western civilization from the brink of collapse was on the bench.  

Winston Churchill was not trusted by his fellow men, for a variety of reasons. He was an outcast, but an outspoken one at that. As Hitler gained power and Germany gained arms, Churchill bombarded his countrymen with warnings about the rising power to their east. 

He was dismissed. Until he wasn’tWhen Churchill’s warnings revealed themselves to be prophetic, he ascended into prominence once again, becoming Prime Minister as war was sweeping over Europe in 1940. 

Where would Britain, indeed western civilization, have been left if Churchill had been silenced rather than heard? His story is a testament to letting contrary voices be heard, rather than shut down and shut out. 

What, then, does Churchill’s example have to do with the present day? 

The Silence Sweeping Over the West 

Today, a fast-moving ideology that silences free expression, shuts down debate, and destroys lives is sweeping across the western world with alarming intensity. The ideology manifests in current cultural phenomena—‘cancel culture’ and ‘deplatforming’ just to name two—but it’s also baked into so-called ‘hate-speech’ laws, which are increasingly common 

Those who hold to this ideology reject ideas and speech that conflict with their own. They are not content to debate the ideas or persuade the masses that their views are indeed correct. Instead, they brand those who disagree with them as ‘bigoted’, ‘hateful’, and ‘on the wrong side of history’. To disagree with this branding is to, in their assertions, try to erase their existence. To disagree with this branding is to also prove your guilt, because people who are not racists don’t have to prove it, neither do those who are not homophobic or transphobic.  

Our modern world prizes identity above all else. Because of what one scholar termed ‘the triumph of the therapeuticany idea or speech that can be even interpreted as being conflicting with the identity of another is deemed a violent attack. And like physical assault, these attacks can be criminal. This why fundamental freedoms such as freedom of thought, expression, and religion are in such peril today.  

George Orwell famously said, ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

As George Orwell famously said, ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ But what if telling another what they do not want to hear means police showing up at your doorstep? 

The vital freedom of dissent is waning across the West. While the challenges that freedom of speech and thought face today are different, they are not new.  

Yesterday’s Problem, Today 

As ADF International Executive Director Paul Coleman persuasively argues, we can look to the post-World War II world for the origins of this current crisis.  

In negotiating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), free speech was at the center of the discussion. The delegation from the West, including the United States, Canada, and nations from Western Europe, strongly supported free speech. Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union and other nations committed to communism did not. As one Soviet delegate said, Freedom of the press and free speech could not serve as a pretext for propagating views which poisoned public opinion.’ 


There is a strong emphasis on freedom of speech within the documents, but the communist-led nations successfully inserted several far-reaching speech restrictions, including prohibitions on the advocacy of ‘hatred’. And although the totalitarian regimes that pushed for such restrictions have long since collapsed, the provisions that they forced through remain. Tragically, the European nations that once defended freedom of speech at the international level and voted against these restrictions have now enacted the national ‘hate speech’ laws that were called for by these treaties. 

Sadly, every European nation has some form of a ‘hate-speech’ law on its books. The most frightening aspect of these laws is that there is no logical end to their insidious reach. ‘Hate speech’ is not limited to speech that directly incites violence. Rather than using debate and persuasion to change views that one considers abhorrent, the instinct is now to criminalize it—even if the offenders are never convicted. 

To argue for robust free speech protections for those who espouse views that we hate is not to endorse those views. Free speech protections are ultimately most powerful (and needed) by those who find themselves outside of the majority—those who offer contrarian views that dissent from popular opinion. For those in the majority, they need to consider a day in which their views fall outside of the mainstream. What treatment would they hope for then? 

Yet, as Coleman says, ‘The grave danger in Europe’s hate speech laws lies not in successful convictions but in the culture of censorship that the laws create: a culture … where citizens do not know the line between allowed and not allowed, where everyone feels he or she is walking on eggshells. 

Facing down cultural headwinds that prefer conformity over originality, do you feel safe to voice your true beliefs? Recent events will make you question if you can do so without finding the police at your door. 

The Speech Police 

Most individuals in the West would probably not believe that a long-serving government official would be investigated for the content of her tweets. But that’s what is happening to Päivi Räsänencurrent Member of Finland’s Parliament.  

After questioning her church leadership on Twitter, which had posted about its official partnership with the LGBT event ‘Pride 2019’Räsänen was accused of ‘hate speech’ and interviewed by police. She had merely attached an image of a passage from the Bible while asking how the Christian sexual ethic aligns with the message of ‘Pride’. 

The interview with police was not short. Nor was there was only one. On the first occasion, she sat through a four-hour long interview. The specific crime that she is alleged to have committed is ‘ethnic agitation’. If convicted, she could face up to two years imprisonment. And yetRäsänen did not degrade anyone. She merely asked a question. 

Not only that, Finland’s Prosecutor General also re-opened an investigation into a pamphlet that Räsänen wrote in 2004 on her church’s teaching on human sexuality—even though police had previously investigated this allegation and concluded that no crime had been committed.  

Since her first interview with police, she has faced two more investigations opened into interviews she gave on television and radio.  

No matter what you think of Räsänen’s beliefs, we should all be able to agree that this treatment is not only disproportionate to whatever offense she may have caused, but also outrageous on its face. If one cannot question the leadership of his or her church, what speech is safe?  

The danger of criminalizing supposedly unpopular speech like Räsänen’s is on full display. If you were an ordinary Finnish citizen and you saw how she is being treated, would you feel emboldened to share your views? Or would you be silent? 

If the supposed offenses of people like Räsänen do not violate ‘hate-speech’ laws, they may nonetheless risk the speaker being ‘cancelled’ or fired for their views. When one’s dissenting speech cannot be criminalized, online mobs have shown a disturbing tendency to do everything within their power to destroy lives. This is the essence of ‘cancel culture’. If you do not agree with popular opinion, you will be ushered out of polite society. 

As the journalist Bari Weiss writes 

If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets. 

Perhaps most ominous for the future of free thought, university campuses are emerging as the new hotbeds of ‘cancel culture’. 

Perhaps most ominous for the future of free thought, university campuses are emerging as the new hotbeds of ‘cancel culture’. 

Aspiring Midwife Investigated for Pro-Life Beliefs 

Julia Rynkiewicz was in her final year of studies at the University of Nottingham. In just a few months, she was going to graduate and begin her career as a midwife, serving pregnant mothers and their soon-to-be-born children. Then her plans were derailed.  

Julia served as President of ‘Nottingham Students for Life’, a pro-life society on campus dedicated to the belief that all human beings—born and unborn—are worthy of protection. ‘Nottingham Students for Life’ was initially blocked from affiliating with the Students’ Union because its views ‘did not align’ with those of the Union. After Julia, with the support of ADF International, raised the prospect of legal action, the society was granted affiliation. 

Because of Julia’s involvement with this society, she was suspended and forced to face a fitnesstopractise investigationThe investigation into Julia was eventually dismissed, but the damage was done. The prospect of a negative outcome had caused her months of anxiety and negatively impacted her wellbeing. Thankfully, through the support of ADF International, justice was won with the university issuing an apology and a settlement in regard to her unfair treatment.  

Unfortunately, it is often universities across the West, which are supposed to be the marketplaces of ideas, that are most intolerant of beliefs and speech that contradict popular opinion. Rather than engaging meaningfully with the arguments, student-led mobs have shown a willingness to disrupt speakers with which they disagree and banish student leaders who do not conform to the beliefs of the most vocal. 

‘Cancel culture’ was born on university campuses. The mentality is spreading throughout Western culture and has even made its way into laws across Europe.  

The Future of Free Speech 

Free speech is in peril. With governments criminalizing unpopular speech, social media mobs ‘cancelling’ those who disagree with the majority’s beliefs on controversial issues, and universities no longer standing as bastions of free thought and free inquiry, both the quantity and depths of the challenges to free speech are daunting. 

Freedom cannot and will not remain without a robust commitment to freedom of speech.

Freedom cannot and will not remain without a robust commitment to freedom of speech. Free speech is the bedrock of fundamental freedoms like religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Those freedoms are not nearly as powerful without the freedom to express one’s beliefs. 

Throughout history, initially-unpopular ideas have been creating the world we know. William Wilberforce spent his life convincing British society that slavery was wrong. The Edinburgh Seven had to convince the nation that it would be beneficial for universities to admit women. The pioneers of social advancement have always been underdogs. 

How many important views will be turned away because of mobs on Twitter? How many dedicated employees will be fired for stating biological fact? How many students will be censored from sharing their pro-life beliefs? How many people will remain silent, rather than bravely speaking?  

The freedom to disagree is under attack—and, along with it, liberty itself. How will the West respond?

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