For the last two years, the online magazine Spiked has published a report on the state of ‘free speech’ on university campuses, and ranking institutions according to whether they ban, actively censor or chill free speech on campus. ‘Green’ rankings are given to institutions which take a ‘hands-off approach’ to free speech, while ‘amber’ and ‘red’ is awarded to universities and student unions whose policies or actions are considered to impinge on free speech.

York falls foul of a harassment policy which includes ‘offensive verbal or practical jokes’, as does Liverpool for suggesting that homophobic, racist, sexist or otherwise abusive personal remarks might amount to bullying. A zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment sees Sheffield’s student union ranked as ‘red’, as does Goldsmith’s student union’s support for a woman’s right to choose alongside its condemnation of transphobia. My own institution, the University of Glasgow, is scolded for an equality and diversity policy which bars ‘any attempt to coerce or threaten others to comply with a particular belief system’.

As a whole, Spiked’s campus analysis shows little interest in the consequences of speech, the different contexts in which speech might circulate or the existing distinctions of relative power and entitlement which govern who gets to speak (and be heard) in the first place. Conspicuous in its absence is any recognition that harassment and bullying are in themselves powerful deterrents to free speech, or that tolerance for harassment creates communities which privilege speech for some while inhibiting speech for others. After all, it makes a certain sense to discount policies intended to secure participatory parity as censorship if you think everyone already has an equal ability to speak. But as Nancy Fraser once argued in her analysis of the public sphere,  the assumption that differences of social status can be ‘bracketed’ or set aside for a free exchange of ideas ‘usually works to the advantage of dominant groups in society and to the disadvantage of subordinates’ (1990: 64). Those who already have little trouble being heard continue to speak ‘freely’, even as the freedom to speak remains unevenly distributed. This is where Spiked’s defence of free speech may find its limit – locked to a defence of the status quo in the guise of radicalism.

I’m halfway through writing this post when news of an international misgoynist’s plans to hold public gatherings in the UK breaks. Claiming that his followers are being intimidated into silence for their beliefs, he threatens ‘furious retaliation’ against anyone who might protest his events. A few days later, the events are cancelled due to ‘safety concerns’, though it’s possible that toxic levels of irony may have also been involved. in any case, what does it say when one group of people can only ‘come out of the shadows’ – to use the organisers’ words – by threatening others to keep clear of public spaces?

The question of who is able to speak in public – and about which subjects – is complicated,  but any meaningful discussion of speech and speech rights needs to understand or acknowledge context (not least because speech without a situation isn’t really speech at all). Speech doesn’t take place in a void and it certainly isn’t directionless or without consequence. Pretending otherwise does little to contribute towards an understanding of threats to speech or – more affirmatively, the possibilities for doing things with words.