Skip to main content

27 May 2022

The nuance of public opinion is missing from the free speech debate

Bobby Duffy

There are constant attempts to force the public into two warring tribes


Professor Bobby Duffy is Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

It may seem that our media, social media and politics are now obsessed by free speech – but that’s only because they are.

Elon Musk has pledged to run Twitter like a “free speech absolutist”. Piers Morgan’s show is “Uncensored”, and GB News has “Free Speech Nation”.

But these are only minor examples of an extraordinary increase in attention on whether free speech is being “chilled” or “cancelled”, as shown by our new research.

We’ve been tracking media coverage and public opinion on key “culture war” terms and issues for the last few years. And from all the touchstone phrases wrapped up in the idea, it’s “cancel culture” that has seen the most meteoric rise in use in UK newspapers. It literally wasn’t mentioned before 2018 – but in 2021 there were 3,670 articles that used the term.

With that level of media astroturfing, it’s not surprising that the public have noticed. In 2020, half the UK public had never even heard of “cancel culture”, but only a quarter can say the same now. Four in 10 Brits now say they know “a lot” about a term that didn’t exist a very few years ago.

But this isn’t just a media concoction. There are real, vitally important issues at stake, as seen in the sudden plethora of legislation.

In the UK, a freedom of speech bill and an online safety bill are making their way through parliament. The former in particular has divided opinion, with Labour arguing it “gives free rein to extremists”. The universities minister, on the other hand, has said the bill is needed to ensure universities “remain a fortress of ideas, putting an end to the nonsense of cancel culture”.

And the European Commission is now actively grappling with the free speech tensions inherent in social media, with approval last month for its Digital Services Act, which sets out an “unprecedented new standard for the accountability of online platforms”, covering not just illegal but “harmful” content.

It’s a fierce debate that’s only just starting – and our study shows it’s set to run into a wide range of views among the public.

At one end of the spectrum, we found one in eight people (mainly men) in the UK are “free speech fighters”, who have a very strong belief that people are too easily offended and are overwhelmingly against taking any actions that could be seen as limiting freedom of expression.

At the other end, one in five are “freedom-from-harm fighters”. Mostly women, this group believes people should be more sensitive in how they talk and supports a wide range of actions to reduce offense.

More generally, across the population as a whole, we’re often evenly divided on whether we should take actions that affect free speech. For example, we’re split down the middle on whether videos of a comedian’s show should be taken down if they use language offensive to minorities.

But this is not a simple battle between two tribes in a culture war. Rather, a more careful look at public opinion shows people draw distinctions depending on the context, topic, and individuals involved.

For example, the public see it as much more acceptable to risk offence on subjects like Brexit and climate than race or gender identity. They also distinguish between speech that causes “offence” and speech that is “threatening or abusive”. This is a crucial grey area, and will be a source of constant tension in reactions to the new legislation: one person’s offence is another’s abuse.

There are no easy answers – but our research points to a few things we should bear in mind.

First, despite expansive media and political airtime, free speech is far from topping people’s list of concerns: just 3% of the UK public say it is one of the most important issues facing the country.

But when people do engage, it’s clear that the bulk of the public balance two deeply British traits. We start with a strong underlying sympathy for free speech – there is no majority constituency for banning lots of behaviours that some will find offensive, and globally, we’re the nation most suspicious of political correctness.

But our reputation for tolerating difference and politeness is also authentic: it’s only ever a minority who are relaxed about offending others on wide range of issues including race, sexuality, gender identity, immigration and religion. Indeed, we’ve seen an increase in the last few years in people saying we should generally be more sensitive in how we talk, rather than our problem being that others are too sensitive.

Public opinion, then, reflects the nuance of the issue, which is not easily reduced to a “free speech absolutist” versus “snowflake” stand-off. The current media and political debate seems intent on forcing the public into two warring tribes – but, in the end, that approach is not only divisive, it’s unlikely to take.

Related departments