Allow it, Monitor it or Censor it? Students Debate Free Speech in the House of Lords

By: Toby Gould, Editor

Yesterday, for the tenth year in a row, the House of Lords opened up its chamber to non-members for a debate.  The question of debate this year? Should there be limits to freedom of speech in the UK?  Involved were a number of organisations, including English PEN, Migrants Organise, 38 Degrees, Speakers’ Corner Trust and nine schools, as well as Newham Sixth Form College.  In total over 200 people took part in an event which lasted two and a quarter hours and was facilitated by Lord Norman Fowler, the Lord Speaker.  Read our coverage and thoughts below:

(C) House of Lords via Twitter

The participants were split into thirds, supporting three propositions.  The first proposed no limits on freedom of speech, “The best counter to harmful speech is debate not censorship”. The second proposition was to monitor speech, “the government should be allowed to monitor closely what people are saying and intervene if they need to for security reasons”. The third and final proposition called for censorship, “we should be able to restrict or censor harmful voices”.  Despite, as one student quipped, the irony that participants were given their argument and weren’t able to choose based on their own opinions, the topic of debate, which can be somewhat controversial at times, ensured that it was passionate and lively throughout. As Lord Fowler said afterwards, “all the speeches were excellent and some… were outstanding.”

There were many thought-provoking points raised throughout the debate – but a few stuck out. One of the best arguments for the first proposition, placing no limits on free speech, was put forward the personal experience of participants.  One spoke about the rights of the disabled.  Without free speech, minority groups wouldn’t have been able to fight for the rights they have now. This point came up time and time again; just 50 years ago laws banned ‘homosexual acts’, we were told.  Without free speech how would we have moved away from this in society? How would we, as a society, progress?  Without free speech and without free debate, minority groups wouldn’t have a voice and many people in this country wouldn’t have the rights they have today.  This is an argument that proved convincing. 

Historical, and philosophical, points aside, others raised issues which are prominent amongst young people today.  One raised the issue of “no platforming” on university campuses, an issue which he said, when arguing against censorship, “allows negative ideas to go unchallenged”. Similarly, another participant notes “it’s just as important to have people who disagree with you as it is to have people who agree”. 

Of course, there were great arguments given for the propositions to monitor and censor free speech.  The pragmatism of monitoring, or censoring, what people say was a point continuously raised.  Anti-harassment laws, libel laws and laws against racial hatred are designed for the good of society, it was argued. But even those who argued for monitoring free speech saw the dangers of too much government interference.  One member of the debate noted that free speech “is the last defence against tyranny”, explaining how press censorship in Turkey has allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his power.

Like speeches which normally take place in the Lords, or Commons, chamber, those given yesterday were not without soundbites. A favourite was “don’t silence speech, educate and teach”, but “we cannot have a diverse Britain without diverse voices” was equally as good. The confidence with which these speeches and lines were delivered was very impressive; it truly showed the Lords what young people are capable of: sensible, thought-provoking and intelligent debate.

So who won? To accurately assess a winner, two votes were taken – one at the start and the other at the beginning of the debate.  In the first vote, pre-debate, ‘monitor free speech won’ (86), with no limits coming second on 79.  Those who wanted to censor free speech where in a very small minority, just 20 voted for the third proposition.  However, the second vote produced a different result. The argument to have no limits on free speech came a convincing first with 98 votes (up 19), while voted to ‘monitor’ speech fell by 11, to 75.  Similarly, those who wanted censorship were reduced to just 16 votes (down 4).  The argument for absolute free speech was the more convincing one, although saying that is not too take away from the excellent speeches given by those opposed.  Ultimately, it is easier to argue against censorship on the basis of rights and freedoms. Yet those who were arguing for no limits on free speech brought a mix of traditional points and original arguments to the debate.  They were deserved winners. 

You can watch the full debate on Parliament TV (

Related: Free Speech in the UK: An Overview
Allow it, Monitor it or Censor it? Students Debate Free Speech in the House of Lords Allow it, Monitor it or Censor it? Students Debate Free Speech in the House of Lords Reviewed by Student Voices on 17:37 Rating: 5

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