Free Speech Defenses and the Far Right: The Cases of Tommy Robinson, Geert Wilders and Milo Yiannopoulos
For several years now, scholars have identified a rich seam in far-right discourse that has strategically used liberal rights to further what is ostensibly an illiberal, anti-immigration agenda (Akkerman 2005; Halikiopoulou et al 2013; Moffitt 2017; Margulies 2018). Notable examples of this include the Dutch populist leader Pim Fortuyn, expressing in the mid-2000s his fears that the so-called “Islamization” of Dutch culture would eradicate the emancipation of women and members of the LGBTQ community, or Jorg Haider and Umberto Bossi expressing concerns (as far back as the early 1990s) that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the core values of Western societies (Betz and Johnson 2004). Either way, such a turn to liberalism has been noted by prominent scholars for both its “potent” and “paradoxical” effects (Griffin 2000)—cleansing the far-right of its previous anti-system connotations, but also furthering its own anti-pluralist agenda by only granting access to political rights and institutions for one dominant ethnic group. Indeed, the smokescreen seems to have worked—with one study finding that parties (e.g. the SVP, LPF and PVV) that distance themselves from an overtly, exclusionary narrative perform better electorally than others (e.g. the FN, BNP and NPD) (Halikiopoulou et al 2013).
One key aspect of this illiberal form of liberalismthat has recently come to the fore,is the use of freedom of speech defenses to justify the airing of both anti-migrant and anti-elite sentiments in the public sphere. At the 2018 “Free Tommy Robinson” protests, for example, the imprisonment of the former English Defence League (EDL) leader, Stephen Yaxley Lennon, for contempt of court charges was construed as an attempt to stifle free speech and silence concerns around diversity, multiculturalism, and immigration (Trilling 25 October 2018). Moreover, in the year prior, the cancellation of several US college campus events featuring British alt-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos led to claims by sympathetic campus groups that “arbitrary and irrational bureaucratic hurdles” had been imposed to put obstacles in the way of Yiannopoulos’ First Amendment free speech rights. Finally, and in reaction to an October 2016 Hate Speech trial held against Dutch anti-Islam PVV party leader, Geert Wilders; Wilders labelled his prosecution for leading a chant calling for “fewer Moroccans” at a campaign rally as being a “political trial” and a “travesty”—aimed at “silencing” him before the March 2017 elections in the Netherlands.
Such a combination of anti-migrant and anti-elite sentiments is not new, but suggests greater scholarly focus, and attention should be focused on empirically scrutinizing how such free speech defenses are constructed, deployed, and legitimized by the far right. Using the above three cases, this article aims to evaluate the veracity, legitimacy, and authenticity of their claims to defend freedom of speech.
Tommy Robinson and the 2018 Free Tommy Protests
The first case study that we can turn to in order to examine how radical right actors deploy free speech defenses is the former leader of the anti-Islam EDL and the UK branch of PEGIDA [Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident], Tommy Robinson. Recently released from prison on contempt of court charges, Robinson has become a rallying point for anti-establishment sentiment in the UKusing criminal prosecutions by the state against him as a evidence of victimization and silencing (Allchorn 13 June 2018). Indeed, Robinson’s recent prosecution has seen a number of high profile “Free Tommy!” demonstrations happen in and around London—attended and highlighted by the likes of Dutch PVV leader, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump Jr. and the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Gerrard Batten. In relation to Robinson’s recent imprisonment, then, the UK far right scene now has a human representation of their main victimization narrative—a “heroic political martyr” being brought down by a “corrupt elite”.
Tommy Robinson’s recent foray into free speech activism is not his first, however. Prior to launching a UK chapter of PEGIDA in February 2016, Robinson spoke at PEGIDA Germany’s first anniversary demonstration in Dresden in October 2015. In his speech, Robinson started by railing against Angela Merkel’s refugee “Welcome Culture” and likened the refugee crisis to World War II. More pertinent, however, were sections of his speech in which he told the crowd of 40,000 PEGIDA activists that there were things they were “not permitted to speak about” namely “the two evils: [Islamic] terrorism and [extreme Isla–mist] ideology.” Here, Robinson fused his victimhood narrative to one focused on freedom of speech by implying that: “free speech is all but dead in Europe” and that “We live in a post free speech era, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo have proven that to the whole world.” Instead of free speech, therefore, Robinson extends the claim that far right activists are offered “shame,” “silence,” “death threats,” “harassment,” and “persecution.”
Robinson’s narrative of victimization in connection to free speech has therefore been a well-trained, rhetorical strategy that he has been developing over many years. When Robinson was remanded in custody in Britain in 2012 for entering the United States on a false passport, for instance, a number of EDL supporters held a demonstration outside of Wandsworth prison to “free Tommy.” An online post that accompanied the demonstration stated that “After over a month in prison, it’s no wonder EDL supporters are asking why someone who has dedicated himself to standing up against extremism is being victimized in this way.” Moreover, arguments about a police state and two-tier justice system, key themes in his 2015 part-essay, part-autobiography, Enemy of the State—set up Robinson as the oppressed crusader and freedom fighter. As Alexander Oaten (2014) argues, this use of victimhood is not accidental. Collective victimhood helped to galvanize the EDL around its core aims and goals, and to identify clear antagonistic Others (such as Islam and the State) to oppose. Furthermore, such a sense of silencing has been proven as a key appeal for activists to enter the movement – with Hilary Pilkington (2016) noting that a sense of exclusion and marginalization has served as a key motivating factor behind EDL activism.
Turning to the present 2018 episode, we can see how victimization also plays out in Robinson’s free speech defenses. In a May 2018 “free speech” protest in Hyde Park, London, for example, Robinson connected silencing and freedom of speech again, this time by linking it to racism saying that: “The people of this country have been silenced for 20-30 years with the tag of racists. They have managed to silence people so that they are too scared to speak up when they see things that are wrong.” Moreover, at his trial later that year for contempt of court, Robinson’s supporters continually connected his prosecution with silencing his views on Islam, suggesting that: “Free speech is … under attack by people trying to silence Tommy Robinson’ and that Robinson was being restricted from ‘speak[ing] the truth.” Adding further fuel to this narrative, Robinson wore a “Convicted of Journalism” T-shirt to his sentencing hearing in July 2019—a nod to his shift from protest movement leader to guerrilla journalist since 2016.
A number of points can be suggested in reviewing the veracity, legitimacy and authenticity of Robinson’s free speech defenses. Firstly, while it is true that Robinson has endured considerable police attention and action by the state for his activism within the far right, this is due to the illegality of his actions and wider principles at stake as a direct result from his breach of reporting rules. As the judge at his second trial suggested, “This contempt hearing is not about free speech. This is not about the freedom of the press. It is about justice, and it is about ensuring that a trial can be carried out justly and fairly.” Secondly, the veracity of the victimization narrative can also be critically evaluated—especially for someone with such a large online followership. As one commentator suggests, “the vast majority of people do not have regular TV slots, or newspaper columns, or radio shows” (Jones 31 May 2018). This strikes at the heart of the notion of a free, “market place of ideas.” As we know from experience, some have more of a monopoly on public opinion than others. Finally, and as noted by Pilkington (2016), anti-racism defenses have been a key part of free speech activism within Robinson’s brand of anti-Islamic politics. Robinson’s latest free speech defenses can be seen as one instance in a long line of other stratagems for defending culturally racist views through accusations of repression and silencing.
Milo Yiannopoulos and the 2016 and 2017 Campus Tours
The second case study that we can turn our attention to are several US college campus events held in 2016 and 2017 featuring British alt-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos. Many of these were under the auspices of a broader tour—used by Yiannopoulos to rail against feminism, Black Lives Matters, the left and political correctness. Of these cancelled events, the most prominent was in Spetember 2017 at UC Berkely where violence broke out amongst the 1,500 gathered to protest the event. Yiannopoulos claimed the violence was caused by “the left, showing up, being violent to stop freedom of speech.” Indeed, there were appearances by more militant left-wing groups. However, most mainstream opposition to the event was non-violent—more than 200 UC Berkeley faculty had signed a petition urging the university to cancel the event.
Tracts from Yiannopoulos’ (2017) self-published book, Dangerous gives us insights into how the alt-right activist uses free speech to further his anti-feminist, anti-left and anti-Islam politics. In the book, much of the sections devoted to free speech talk about the importance of offensive speech and testing the boundaries of acceptable speech. For example, in one section, Yiannopoulos suggests, “Twitter’s problem is not that there’s too much edgy speech, it’s that there is too little” (Ibid: Location 935). Moreover, in another section, Yiannopoulos argues, “For free speech to have any true meaning, it must be practiced where it is most unwanted” (Ibid: Location 3231). Finally, Yiannopoulos stipulates, “There is no greater danger to free expression and free speech today than the far-left biases of Silicon Valley”(Ibid: Location 1025). For Yiannopoulos, then, offensive speech is clearly part-and-parcel of democracy. More critically however, it is something that he uses within his discourse as a form of identity politics against the left.
More problematic are Yiannopoulos’ views on Islam and his use of free speech to defend his Islamophobic rhetoric. In one section, for example, Yiannopoulos describes himself as a “free speech fundamentalist” because, in his view, Islam is “inherently prescriptive and it’s much more political”(Ibid: Location 2451). Moreover, in another section, Yiannopoulos expresses the view that: “Everywhere Islam exists you find political tyranny” and that “Islam is as much a political ideology as a religion” (Ibid: Location 2482). Without irony, the only way to get over this, in Yiannopoulos’ eyes, is therefore to “put limits on it” and to “restrict” Islam through the banning of the Burqa and curtailing Islamic immigration (Ibid).
Turning to the events of 2017, much of this anti-feminist, anti-Black Lives Matter and anti-Islam rhetoric was on display in Yiannopoulos’ performances as part of the tour. At a talk at UC Boulder in January 2017, for example, Yiannopoulos’ speech was peppered with provocative jokes about Muslims, obese people, gender studies professors, Native Americans and sexual assault. Defending his comments, founder and president of the right-wing group Turning Point USA, Adrianna Conradson, suggested, “We all have the freedom to have free speech, he can say whatever he wants, but people shouldn’t let it bother them so much.” The talk drew more than 200 protestors who turned out with placards reading, “CNN lies” and “feminism is a cancer.” Another read: “Hate speech ≠ free speech.”
Moreover, at a subsequent talk at the Seattle campus of the University Of Washington (UW) in March 2017, Yiannopoulos spoke for an hour again taking aim at political progressives, feminists and academics who condemn hate speech. In keeping with his rhetorical strategy of provocation and deflection, Yiannoupoulos retorted that: “There is no definition of hate speech, there’s just things you don’t like to hear” before labelling UW “one of the most repulsively left-wing campuses in all of the United States.” Such was the animosity stirred by Yiannoupoulos’ visit that a protestor was critically injured and nearly killed on the eve of the speech.
Finally, and later that year, Yiannopoulos was invited to what would be the final stop on his campus tour; this time on October 30th at the Fullerton campus of California State University. Eight people were arrested out of a crowd of 150 people who came to protest the event. Yiannopoulos spent much of his talk commenting on the sexual harassment scandals plaguing Hollywood before calling on the federal government to withhold funding from universities that try to shut down conservative speech. As seen with Tommy Robinson, Yiannopoulos fused his free speech defenses with a victimization narrative—suggesting that, “When it comes to oppressed minorities and marginalized groups, there’s no tribe in America at greater risk—the physical and existential risk—than the campus conservative.”
To conclude, there are a number of critical evaluations we can make about Milo Yiannoupoulos’ free speech defenses. Firstly, and more stylistically, Yiannoupoulos’ humor and jokes— reminiscent of alt-right online meme culture and language—are used as a key deflection strategy by Yiannoupoulos. Intended to disarm the recipient, they attempt to normalize and positively portray his anti-feminist, anti-Black Lives Matter and anti-Islam rhetoric; something he uses in conjunction with free speech defenses as well. Secondly, Yiannoupoulos, like Robinso, fuses free speech defenses with claims of victimhood; suggesting that political correctness has reduced the space for conservative opinions to surface. This, however, rests in tension with the more Islamophobic sections of Yiannoupoulos’ belief system—restricting civil and political rights for religious minorities but not for other sections of the majority population. Finally, and most pertinently, Yiannoupoulos explicitly uses free speech defenses to defend forms of offensive speech, with one excerpt of his autobiography stating: “For free speech to have any true meaning, it must be practiced where it is must unwanted” (Ibid: Location 3231). Here, again, Yiannoupoulos tries to normalize intolerant and harmful rhetoric under the mask of calling out uncomfortable truths.
Geert Wilders and the 2010 and 2016 Hate Speech Trials
Turning to the Netherlands, another key episode that we can examinein relation to far right free speech defenses—are a number of recent trials held against the Netherland’s PVV leader, Geert Wilders. Like Robinson, Wilders has a history of anti-Islam activism—comparing the Qu’ran to Mein Kampf and Islam to totalitarianism. This has not come without controversy. In June 2008, a number of attempts to prosecute Wilders under hate speech laws for his Islamophobic film, Fitna, and Mein Kampf comments were filed to the Dutch Prosecution Service (DPS) but were declined on the basis that freedom of expression in the Netherlands extended to “offensive comments.” Moreover, in January 2009, the DPS’ previous decision was quashed when Amsterdam’s Appeal Court decided to allow a prosecution against the controversial politician for his comments linking the Qu’ran and Terrorism. In response, Wilders suggested that he was “stunned” by the Appeal Court’s decision and called it a “very black day, not just for me but for freedom of expression in this country.” Like the DPS, therefore, Wilders clearly saw freedom to air his anti-Islam views as synonymous with freedom of expression.
One of the first seminal cases in the Netherlands to thoroughly test and show Wilder’s attempts at defending freedom of speech came in January 2010 when Wilders was tried for inciting discrimination and hatred. Immediately, Wilders, like Robinson, framed it as a ‘political trial’ aimed at stifling his views on Islamisation. As also seen above, he tried to broaden the stakes of the trial beyond himself—stating, “I am on trial, but on trial with me is the freedom of expression of many Dutch citizens.” The initial trial was complicated by accusations of bias as one of the judges passed comment on his political views. This did not however deter Wilders in the interim, from depicting himself as a martyr—explaining that, “I am standing trial … because of my opinions on Islam … and because the Dutch establishment—most of them non-Muslims—wants to silence me. I have been dragged to court because in my country freedom can no longer be fully enjoyed.” In the end, an order of a retrial was submitted due to a second successful challenge by Wilders’ lawyers that one of the judges had shown bias. OnJune 23, 2011, Wilders was acquitted by the court of all charges, because his statements were, as presiding judge Marcel van Oosten put it, “acceptable within the context of public debate.” Wilders called the case “not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands.”
The second seminal case to thoroughly test Wilder’s attempts at defending freedom of speech came in the context of an election campaign; this time in October 2016 when Wilders was tried for inciting racial hatred against Moroccans. Unrepentant of his comments at a 2014 campaign rally and television interview calling for “fewer” Moroccans in the Netherlands, Wilders again tried to stay on the front foot by labelling the trial as a “political process” and that “the Netherlands has an enormous Moroccan problem”. Attempting to forestall the process a second time, Wilders refused to appear in the trial and used the rhetorical strategy of pivoting away from the issue by suggesting, “Islam is the real hate speech.” In contradistinction to the 2010 trail, however, judges did convict Wilders for insulting a minority group and inciting discrimination – ruling that “crime cannot be protected by the right to free speech” and that Wilders represented an “extraordinary case.” This raises the question: why did the judges rule differently in this case? According to Howard (2017: 324), the main difference was Wilder’s targeting of a group of people versus a religion as a whole. For instance, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights limits contravention of freedom of expression only in the former case. As Howard (2017: 330) notes, going back to Wilders’ first trial:
Do Wilders’ statements [in 2010] foster intolerance? It could be said that the expressions subject to the first prosecution contain a degree of exaggeration and provocation, but neither the Public Prosecutor nor the Amsterdam District Court considered them in breach of Dutch criminal law or the ECHR.
Several points can be made about the veracity, authenticity and legitimacy of Wilders’ freedom of speech claims. Firstly, Wilders is obviously a gifted campaigner and politician that was able to employ skillful, rhetorical strategies in order to authenticate his position as a victim and free speech advocate apart from the charges against him. For example, the tactical evasion of his own actions by expanding his free speech defenses’ beyond himself and tarring judge’s with accusations of bias played particularly well to his home constituency in the latter trial. Secondly, Wilders applied the defense that the trial was inherently “political.” Similar to the strategy used by Robinson, this initial attempt to de-legitimize the trial is part of a broader populist, radical and illiberal rhetoric which underscores the conspiratorial element of such defenses. In effect, such defenses indirectly deny the legitimacy of state institutions by implying that they are “corrupt” or ‘“bias” against ordinary citizens and thus rhetorically erode the legitimacy of the democratic order. Thirdly, we can see how state actors—including the courts—can lend or deny legitimacy to far right actors in their use of freedom of speech defenses. By representing the need for politicians to speak responsibly on matters of race, Wilders’ second 2016 case is instructive in showing how state actors play a role in counterbalancing the power of free speech defenses. Whilst not effective for the minority of far-right supporters, it can help to counteract the legitimation of free speech defenses within the public.
A lot of ground has been already covered when looking at how far right parties and actors use liberal values and rhetoric for illiberal ends (Betz & Johnson 2004; Griffin 2000; Halikiopoulou et al 2013; Howard 2017; Kallis 2013; Margulies 2018; & Moffitt 2017). This article is designed to add to that growing body of evidence but from the specific angle of free speech defenses. Taking three key case studies, we analyzed these defenses and how these have been mobilized. There are a number of findings that are pertinent for scholars researching the far right as well as policymakers responding to these actors. The first key finding is how free speech defenses are connected to other narratives of victimization and silencing. In all three cases, victimization narratives were used in order to further the legitimacy of their claims and mobilize a supportive public behind their actions. Such an impactful and powerful grievance shows how such a fusion can bind support behind free speech defenses—regardless of the veracity of such claims.The second key finding is how free speech is used to undermine the legitimacy of state institutions. Especially in the cases of Robinson and Wilders, the notion of “political” trials was used in order to further de-legitimize and take back control of the judicial process. One can argue that such undermining of democratic institutions is part of a broader conspiratorial element of such language—eroding the foundations of the rule of law and equal human rights as well as homogenizing who can be considered worthy of judicial recourse in a democratic state. To end on a note of hope, the third and final key finding is that mainstream actors have a key stake in limiting the legitimacy of these claims. The Robinson and Wilders cases show that judges and political leaders can be crucial in opening and closing the discursive opportunity structures available to far right leaders using free speech defenses in order to justify their actions. This was evident in the rulings of Robinson’s most recent contempt of court trial and Wilders’ second religious hatred case where both judges publicly countered freedom of speech claims made by the plaintiffs. Such proactive counter responses are therefore key in limiting the rhetorical space for campaigning lent to far right actors when attending such trials.
Such cases highlight how the actual content of free speech defenses by far-right actors can be considered conspiratorial speech. More studies of far-right actors and groups will be needed to test this hypothesis further. However, both the use of liberal speech for illiberal ends and the erosion of human rights point to the main observation of this paper that, it is only when such actors are able to set the agenda in their favor that the deleterious effects of such speech can be felt. It is therefore up to mainstream actors to reply to such claims responsibly and sensitively—undermining the far-right’s tactics without adding further fuel to their claims of victimization and silencing.
William Allchorn is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Leeds and Associate Director at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. He is an expert on anti-Islamic radical right social movements in the UK and Western Europe. His book, Anti-Islamic Protest in the UK: Policy Responses to the Far Right is out with Routledge. As of August 2019, he has started a new research project looking at far-right narratives and counter-narratives globally.
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Photo: Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV during a radio interview, SEPTEMBER 05, 2012 in the Netherlands
Published on January 16, 2020.