Let’s all have a minute’s silence for Youth Defence’s right to free speech


Contains some discussion of psychological responses to crisis pregnancy which may be triggering. Some of the links may also be triggering in other ways.

Over the last few days, a number of those awful Youth Defence posters that have been appearing on billboards all over Dublin have been ripped-down, paint bombed, stickered over with Joyce quotations or otherwise vandalised. (Video here.)

The story was picked up by Broadsheet this afternoon and predictably the comments section is filled with the usual tedious liberal bleating about freedom of speech. Here’s a couple of randomly chosen examples:

Hate this. Am very pro-choice but I also believe in free speech. Just like I don’t agree with the BNP but I hate they way people attempt to stop them attending debates but have no problem with radical leftists attending similar debates.

This is against freedom of expression. Very naive thing to do even to God bothering moral nazis.

The rest is more or less the same: people who vandalise posters are against free speech/worse than Nazis/thugs etc. etc.

First of all, we need to recognise that Youth Defence have deliberately designed these posters to evoke feelings of shame, guilt and distress in order to bully women into doing what they want. Crisis pregnancy and termination can cause acute feelings of distress and anxiety in women, much of which can be linked to pervasive conservative ideas about the immorality of abortion. These posters are designed to be deliberately triggering for women who have been through traumatic situations (triggering here means provoking extremely strong or damaging emotional responses,for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves – see here for more).

For that reason alone these posters shouldn’t be all over the city forcing themselves into people’s consciousness without their consent, and people are right to rip them down. The potential for actual tangible harm to vulnerable people trumps whatever abstract rights Youth Defence can lay claim to.

But we should also think about what exactly free speech means, who gets to lay claim to it, who benefits from it and so on.

Liberals conceptualise freedom of speech in negative terms, as the ability to say whatever you want without any coercive force preventing you from doing so. That’s a useful freedom from the point of view of those with access to the political, social, economic and cultural capital to turn their negative freedom into positive expression. It’s really useful for groups like Youth Defence, who are given massive funding by wealthy anti-choice individuals and groups in the United States, and who operate in a country in which patriarchal Catholic conservatism is embedded culturally and institutionally, but for those without access to those forms of power, their voices remain excluded.

In her testimony to the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, Andrea Dworkin criticised the (liberal) ACLU because “they have convinced many of us that the standard for speech is what I would call a repulsion standard. That is to say we find the most repulsive person in the society and we defend him. I say we find the most powerless people in this society, and we defend them. That’s the way we increase rights of speech in this society.” (source)

In Ireland, people don’t come much more powerless than women in situations of crisis pregnancy – doubly so if they are children, or victims of rape, or in institutional care, or undocumented migrants, or simply too poor to travel to England for an abortion. Every attempt by women to pursue the access to free, safe and legal abortion in this country, either through the courts or through parliament has failed. It’s been 20 years since the X-case ruling established the on-paper right to lifesaving abortion in this country, but since then, actual legislative remedy has been prevented by kicking it back and forth between committees for two decades. In this society, for women who have found themselves, may one day find themselves, or currently find themselves faced with situations of crisis pregnancy and whose voices are routinely dismissed and ignored by state institutions, vandalism like this is their speech and should be defended.

  1. I totally agree with you on this.

    I will say though that the argument around free speech seems to be a big barrier for a lot of progressive campaigns – different understandings of what free speech means leads a lot of people who should be allies on issues such as anti-facism, and this example here, end up defending the other side which doesn’t satisfy them and is bad for anyone who wants to see progressive change. So I think we do need to find a way to talk about this in a way that doesn’t alienate, and that probably requires a constant discussion about the meaning of free speech, and not just once it comes up as an argument.

    If your interested in ways that argument could potentially be framed (in a very liberal mindset friendly way, decide what you think about that yourself!) I’d recommend reading Lessig on regulation of speech – http://www.lessig.org/content/articles/works/regulation-socialmeaning.pdf

    • Hey thanks Muireann. That PDF has gone into my Interesting Political Stuff folder.

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