Tim Squirrell: Free Speech and getting trolled by ‘The Spectator’

Jack May 4 December 2014

Tim Squirrell has had a bad week. I’m sure we all know the story of Oxford’s cancelled abortion debate and the ensuing argument about free speech that broke out across Twitter, Facebook, The Spectator, The Telegraph, and The Tab, but in case you’ve been hibernating: The Cambridge Union’s President, Tim Squirrell, got himself involved in quite a big way.

“I wrote an article for The Cambridge Tab titled, ‘Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean you get whatever platform you want,’ which I didn’t think was particularly controversial, but turns out is. I didn’t say ‘I hate free speech,’ which most people thought I did; I said there were limits on free speech, which most people agree there is, like hate speech laws.

“[I said that] people were so upset about the abortion debate in Oxford because of the people involved, where it was, and the framing of the motion, and people went ballistic at me. The Spectator emailed me to say they were sending me some complimentary copies of The Spectator at the Union. Incredible. I’m being trolled by The Spectator. Someone made me a little origami squirrel out the front page of The Spectator, which is really cute.” 

Lots of the vitriol he’s received in response to his views on the matter seems to have been online, and more informal. “There was one guy who wrote a blogpost called ‘Tim Squirrel and the disease of pre-enlightenment philistinism,’ which was really funny, and he was having a go at me on Twitter, and he just quoted so many dead philosophers. I said ‘maybe you’d agree with me if I quoted more dead white men’, and he said ‘sarcasm isn’t your strong suit Tim’ so I said ‘coherent prose isn’t yours’. He wasn’t very happy about that.”

Did he find it upsetting at all? “It was quite exhausting and absurd. I made a collage of all the things people had said about me, which was fun, but to be honest when it gets to the point that people are tweeting you abuse every hour, it was kind of either laugh or cry. There was kind of a point when the Varsity article came out on the Saturday, after four days of constant argument, that I was a little bit upset, but I think the strongest response is to keep smiling and laughing and trying to notice the funny side of everything.”

I wonder, with the backlash his involvement has incited whether he regrets getting involved in the matter. But it’s safe to say Tim’s a bit more strong-willed than that. “I wrote this because I feel quite strongly about it, and I’ve been interested in free speech for quite a while, and it felt like it had to be written now. I think that for me it’s been important to realise that I can hold an unpopular or controversial view and that’s ok.

"A lot of my writing has been quite middle of the road, terrified of The Tab comments, always scared that someone will say ‘Tim your writing is awful, you’re a dire human being.’ I’ve realised 1) I don’t have to read the comments, and 2) I’m ok with that. I’m ok with not being in agreement with the majority of people all the time, and I think that’s important to recognise when you want to write about things you care about.”