The battle over free speech - Museums Association

The battle over free speech

The recent furore over Arts Council England’s guidance on risk has raised questions about censorship in museums
A display in London's Cartoon Museum, which has experienced backlash over some of the material in its collections Image courtesy of the Cartoon Museum

Do museums and galleries in the UK have a free-speech problem? Following the row over Arts Council England’s guidance for National Portfolio Organisations, which seemed to imply that overtly political or controversial work could potentially breach their funding agreements, there has been a spotlight on what is an increasingly controversial issue for the sector.

The arts council says the guidance, which has now been rewritten, was intended to help organisations mitigate risk rather than limit artistic freedom. But the debate exposed growing caution and uncertainty in the sector over how to protect free speech in an age of polarisation.

This hesitancy can be seen in the response to the Israel-Palestine war; some creative professionals have spoken out against what they say is the censorship of pro-Palestinian voices in cultural institutions, such as the cancellation of two Palestinian film events by the Arnolfini arts venue in Bristol over fears they could be considered political activity.

Accusations of censorship on the complex issue of Israel-Palestine are not new; Alistair Hudson, former director of the University of Manchester’s Whitworth art gallery, allegedly came under pressure to resign in 2021 after a similar row.

Headshot of Alistair Hudson
Former Whitworth art gallery director Alistair Hudson allegedly came under pressure to resign in 2021 over an exhibition featuring a statement that denounced Israel’s military action in Gaza
Suppression of open debate

These incidents raise questions about the extent to which open debate is suppressed in museums. Freedom of speech, expression and enquiry are the cornerstones of a healthy cultural ecology, but the conversation around these issues has evolved significantly.


Until the late 2010s, Julia Farrington was the head of arts at Index on Censorship, an organisation that campaigns against censorship, where she witnessed this change.

A decade ago, says Farrington, free speech was an issue that was very much owned by the political left against what was seen as an authoritarian right; concern was focused on more “conventional” forms of censorship such as police overreach, corporate censorship, and the right of artists to shock and offend.

In recent years, however, the debate has flipped; rightwing figures have become free-speech warriors battling against what they denounce as an authoritarian left determined to control the speech and thought of others. Meanwhile, liberal or progressive voices – including those who make up the vast majority of the arts and culture sector – have become increasingly split on the issue.

How did this happen? In left- wing circles, there has always been tension between freedom of speech and the fight for equality, and how the two should be balanced.

UK law makes narrow provisions for limiting speech that causes clear harm through intimidation, harassment or incitement to hatred or violence. But the perception of what falls under these categories – the line between what is subjectively offensive and what is harmful – has become increasingly blurred.

“These issues were starting to bubble up 10 years ago,” says Farrington. “I left just as they were starting to really rip through and divide the arts sector.”


There is a concern that, on the left, freedom of speech is no longer held as a universal, unqualified good, but something that may be tempered in order to advance other causes.

New front in culture war

The left’s more equivocal stance on the issue has enabled the right to step into the breach, with the result that free speech has now become a new front in the culture war. “Things have become toxic – it’s tough to hold a left-leaning position when free expression just means ‘anti-woke’,” says Farrington.

Many on the left feel that the right’s criticism of “woke” censorship and cancel culture is just political posturing – and there is undoubtedly a hint of hypocrisy among the new wave of free-speech defenders.

After all, one of the most egregious examples of political overreach in culture came when, as part of the UK government’s so-called “war on woke”, former culture minister Oliver Dowden announced his 2021 Retain and Explain policy, which many saw as overt government interference in curatorial independence.

But does the culture sector also have a case to answer, or are fears about progressive censorship just a rightwing scare story?


Joe Sullivan is the director of the Cartoon Museum in London, which has experience in dealing with backlash over the political, controversial and often-offensive material it holds. He feels museums risk being elitist if they disregard the views of audiences on the opposite side of any ideological divide - such as Brexit - leaving some perspectives censored by omission.

“A real danger in the more progressive side is ‘groupthink’ – being afraid to say not everyone thinks like this,” he says. “We’re in a little bubble in the sector but that could lead to a huge amount of stories not being kept.”

Climate of fear

Others have accused museums of more active forms of censorship. The divisive debate around gender is an area in which the sector is particularly struggling to respond; museum workers and visitors have described to Museums Journal what they see as a climate of fear in cultural institutions when it comes to the issue.

It is a undoubtedly a difficult topic to broach because of the hurt and anger it stirs, and the vitriolic nature of discourse on social media. But it’s one that a mature sector should be able to address.

Both sides have raised concerns around freedom of speech. Gender-critical feminists, whose beliefs are protected under the Equality Act, accuse museums of failing to engage with or collect objects from them, discriminating against them, misrepresenting their views, and ignoring or even encouraging abuse towards them.

Artists such as Rachel Ara and Claudia Clare, both lesbians and radical feminists, are among those who say they have been silenced by cultural institutions over their views on sex and gender.

The ceramicist Claudia Clare settled a discrimination claim over her views last year. She is pictured with her work, Circus Act (2020) Photograph by Sylvain Deleu

Recent case law demonstrates that organisations have an obligation to protect freedom of belief in this area. Clare settled a discrimination claim against the Craft Potters Association and the University of the Arts London last year.

She says: “I’d like to be confident that the same basic understanding now extends to all beliefs that fall within the law, but there is clear evidence that freedom of thought, expression and speech is still not widely understood in the art world.”

The arts council itself has experienced the fallout from this issue; it settled with former employee Denise Fahmy last year after a tribunal ruled that it had failed to protect her from harassment by colleagues over her gender-critical beliefs.

Fahmy and choreographer Rosie Kay, who was cancelled for similar reasons, have since launched Freedom in the Arts, a five-year campaign for the protection of freedom of expression in the culture sector.

On the other side of the discourse, LGBTQ+ groups say cultural institutions have become increasingly cautious when it comes to representing them.

Ahead of its reopening last year, the Young V&A in London was accused of censorship for removing two books and a flag related to the trans community from its shop, saying the items were not age appropriate for its under-14s core audience.

Here and Queer, by Rowan Ellis, was one of the books removed from the Young V&A shop last year

Curators have described how any work they do related to LGBTQ+ history faces the wrath of online mobs expressing homophobic and transphobic abuse. In response to this, last year the University of Leicester issued guidance to support museums to be more ambitious and confident in advancing trans inclusion.

It is not the role of museums and galleries to resolve political debates, but they do have a responsibility to document and reflect such issues in a balanced and objective way, to protect the rights of their workers and audiences, and to foster better dialogue and understanding.

Many now feel that the sector must reconsider its approach; freedom of speech is too precious to fall victim to any culture war. It belongs to all of us and must be defended as such.

The impact of the corporate sector on cultural institutions
A climate protester ripping a sign featuring the BP logo
Environmental activists from BP or Not BP © 2020 Ron Fassbender

The past decade has seen a huge expansion in the corporate sector’s power over cultural institutions after austerity forced the arts to turn to private funding sources. Museums Journal is aware of several cases in which corporate sponsors are alleged to have interfered directly in the content of exhibitions, and even influenced museums’ policy positions.

“Our research has uncovered disturbing examples of how polluting sponsors have sought influence over museums,” says Chris Garrard, co-director of Culture Unstained, the group that campaigns against fossil fuel sponsorship in the arts.

“More subtle forms of self-censorship are just as troubling, where non-disparagement clauses in sponsorship contracts can create a chilling effect.”

Resources on censorship

Museums Association Code of Ethics

The code provides an ethical framework for issues around censorship and freedom of expression. The MA is currently revising its guidelines and will publish an updated code later this year.

Cilip guidance

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) has produced guidance on managing safe and inclusive services while upholding intellectual freedom. It urges libraries to contextualise challenging ideas rather than withholding access to them, and says “the librarian should never act as censor”.

Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality

Developed in 2009, the principles explore in detail how to strike a balance between freedom of expression and equality as “mutually supporting and reinforcing human rights”.

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