Interview with Izzy Posen – President, Bristol Free Speech Society (University of Bristol)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Izzy Posen grew up in an Ultra Orthodox community in Stamford Hill. He attended numerous Charedi yeshivas. He left the communities. Now, he is a Jewish educator in the wider Jewish community while continuing university studies. He is the President of the Bristol Free Speech Society at the University of Bristol. Here we talk about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s talk about freedom of speech in a colloquial sense and freedom of expression in a civil and legal sense. How do you understand the distinction – not in their gross or coarse manifestation but in their nuanced way – between freedom of speech and freedom of expression?

Because there can be a blanketing of the two as the colloquialism “free speech,” as one branch of modern social justice movements (human rights and equality, where this means the equal provision of the right to freedom of expression).

Izzy Posen: That is a very important distinction. I have never used that exact terminology, but to go along with your definitions, I think that Freedom of Expression is a purely negative principle, whereas Freedom of Speech has negative and positive components to it. Let me explain what I mean by this.

Freedom of expression is the basic negative idea that governments should – generally speaking – not interfere with the expression of their citizens. I call it a negative principle because it is about what should not be done. 

Free speech in the colloquial sense means much more for me though. Besides for including the negative aspect of free expression, it also includes positive principles about constructive and civil dialogue. I call this positive because it is about what we should do. 

Free speech for me consists of the following two positive principles: 

  • Open mindedness: we do not censor others’ speech because we want to hear what they have to say. We see value in dissenting views because they help us find the mistakes in ours. Listening to an opposing position will make our own position more nuanced and balanced
  • Respectful dialogue: we want to construct the kind of society where disputes and disagreement s are settled through respectful dialogue, rather than through violence. If we do not like what others say, we want to speak with them to flesh out our disagreements, rather than silencing them

But there is a point of nuance here that people often overlook. Free speech does not mean that all opinions have equal weight or validity. It also does not mean that everything that could be said should be said. In fact, a great deal of what is said should not be said and we should actively discourage people from engaging in hateful and divisive rhetoric. This is why free speech has to be kept distinct from free expression because we need to be able to criticise bad ideas without allowing for the government to censor them. The principle of respectful dialogue in the category of free speech means that we should discourage certain kinds of speech. But, as far as the government is concerned, free expression ensures that these opinions should not be banned top down.

Another point of confusion is when people make the argument that when universities no-platform speakers they are not going against free speech since they are not a governmental organisation and are thus just not providing a platform, rather than silencing speech. This argument also results from a confusion of free speech with free expression. It is true that when universities and other non-governmental organisations no-platform speakers they are not violating free expression. By definition (according to the present terminology), free expression pertains to the law and to government only. However, they are going against free speech, as the principle of open mindedness means that we should be open to dissenting views. Banning views from campus just because we find them offensive goes against this principle.

These examples show that we need both paradigms. The free expression paradigm ensures that speech will not be censored by law. Then the free speech paradigm states that we should 1) be open minded in being willing to listen to others’ views, and 2) be respectful in dialogue and encourage the kind of speech that is constructive and civil. 

Jacobsen: What are some modern freedom of expression issues in Bristol? 

Posen: We have had several instances this year where there was an attempt to stifle speech and shut down events, sometimes successfully. Last year students passed a motion that would effectively mean that speakers critical of some ideas within the transgender movement would not be able to talk on campus, under the claim that they are transphobic. The motion was later found by Student Union trustees to violate the SU’s constitutional and legal obligations and the motion was as a result softened. However, there is still the worry that speakers can be banned on the basis of their views on transgender issues. Moreover, the fact that students voted to ban speakers is in itself worrying, as it shows that intolerant attitudes abound on campus.

Just a couple of weeks ago we had an event of ours cancelled. A speaker was scheduled to present her research into extremism on UK campuses. She found that many campuses host speakers who are considered extreme by the UK government. As most of the speakers in question were Islamic, the Bristol Islamic Society saw her talk as islamophobic. They organised a big protest outside the event – something that we welcomed – but also called for the event to be cancelled. Just hours before the event was scheduled to happen the university caved into pressure and cancelled the event. They also said that the speaker cannot talk on campus in the future unless there is a speaker opposing her at the event and there is an independent chair hosting the event, chosen by the SU. What is shocking is that the speaker, Emma Fox, who has not uttered an islamophobic comment in her life, has been labelled as this extremist who cannot speak unless opposition is present.

These and several other recent cases on our campus show that we still have a lot of work to do, both on an institutional level, to make sure that the university does not censor students’ speech, and on a student level, to change intolerant attitudes.   

Jacobsen: Does this seem widespread or more marginal but growing? In terms of either of those ways, what are the statistics to support this claim?

Posen: Last year the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on free speech in UK universities, which can be found here. In it they write that they did not find a ‘free speech crisis’ in universities, but are worried that there might be a chilling effect on free speech from intimidatory behaviour and excessive bureaucracy. That is largely consistent with my experience. Universities do usually want to protect students’ free speech, but they often face strong pressure from the student body to censor speech. The bureaucracy is also really off-putting, as most of the work with organising events nowadays goes into the paperwork of the SU and in satisfying very stringent security demands. It is pretty clear to me that the problem of free speech on campus stems, not from the institutions themselves, but from intolerant attitudes within the student body. 

Jacobsen: What seem to be the more common forms of violations of freedom of expression?

Posen: I would separate them into two categories: the institutional and the attitudinal. 

As I said, universities as institutions usually do want to protect free speech, although we have at least on one occasion been told by the university that we cannot hold a certain event (the one mentioned above with Emma Fox). This is on the institutional level.

A far more pervasive and worrying trend is growing intolerant attitudes amongst the student body towards anyone who doesn’t fit the orthodox narrative. This intolerance may be targeted towards people who have the “wrong” views on immigration, transgender issues, Islam and even mainstream politics. Fairly mainstream conservative politicians have been physically attacked on campus, or have faced calls and petitions to be no-platformed. Students are very quick to slander those whom they disagree with. I have been called a fascist, an islamophobe and a transphobe just for my free speech activism. Of course I’m none of these.  

Jacobsen: How was is being dealt in university campuses and in Bristol? How is the local community working to protect freedom of expression and freedom of speech?

Posen: Last year the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights published their guidance on free speech to universities and students, which can be found here. More recently the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued its guidance here. The general public outside of universities and the media are sympathetic to our cause, as are many students on campus. Free speech societies are springing up all over the country with students are sending out the message of tolerance to their colleagues. This is bound to make a change for the better.

Jacobsen: Who seem like a prominent people who are serious, and not simply jokesters and fame seekers and fire-starters, in the modern work to protect violations of freedom of expression? Often, the more informed and intelligent, they exist on the margins of this debate, especially in the era of YouTube personalities and some Reddit commentary.

Posen: Many public personas in the UK have spoken out about these issues. Stephen Fry, a much beloved comedian and author, regularly speaks out against orthodoxy and political correctness. Ricky Gervais, a comedian, writer and actor has based his Netflix show Humanity around Freedom of expression. Rowan Atkinson has also spoken out about this issue in a well-circulated video.

Jacobsen: How have these topics influence daily and professional life for you?

Posen: For me it’s quite the other way around: my life has influenced my activism. I grew up in an extremely conservative religious cult. We believed in the most wackiest of ideas and questioning got you kicked out – which is what eventually happened to me. I have experienced first hand the dangers of dogmatism. When society silences its critics and dissenters it can get lost in its thought and ends up believing in dangerous falsehoods.

But my work on campus has also impacted my student experience. It really is all consuming work and I have had to sacrifice precious study time to be on top of things with the running of the society. Thankfully, I have an amazing and dedicated committee and together we get things done and manage to leave some time for study as well. But I also view my work as an extension of my education as a philosophy student. It’s a bit like philosophical field work. Being at the forefront of these debates really makes you think a lot about questions of ethics, rights and where to draw lines in grey areas. I would say that my work is as much philosophically challenging as it is challenging work-load-wise.

Jacobsen: Any recommended authors or speakers?

Posen: I am greatly influenced by Sam Harris, through his books, but mainly through his podcast Making Sense. I find him to be an example of clear thinking and someone who values respectful dialogue for its own sake. He is also a thinker that embodies the values of enlightenment liberalism – such as scepticism, humanism, individual liberty, etc. – something that is quite rare these days following the postmodernists’ critiques of liberalism.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Posen: I think that we should all familiarise ourselves with the pitfalls of our own intellect. Modern psychology has converged with what philosophers have been claiming for millennia, that our mind is constantly at work to deceive us. A recent book exploring these issues from the psychological angle is Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. But philosophers from the ancients through Descartes and Hume have been cautioning us for scepticism and humility in our capacities. The only conclusion that we can draw from what we now know about our minds is that it makes no sense to be dogmatic. We should always be aware of the fallibility of our own thought process and that amongst our strongly held beliefs some are likely to be false. Recognising this, one should be very weary of silencing others, as we really cannot know when we are silencing someone who might be helping us get closer to what’s true. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Izzy.

Posen: Was my pleasure!

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

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About Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere. You can contact Scott via email, his website, or Twitter.

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