Speaking freely

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I attended a debate at an Irish university. One of the speakers that night was to be a British politician who was a supporter of the former Conservative (and just turned Unionist) Enoch Powell. Just as the politician in question rose to speak, a group of students jumped up and started shouting, ‘no free speech for Fascists!’ This went on with rising volume, and in the end the man was unable to begin his speech, and the debate ended in confusion. The group concerned – which I believe (though I may be misremembering this) was organised by the ‘Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist)’ – expressed itself satisfied.

Different cause, same tactics: as many will know, a UK academic, Professor Len Doyal, was recently prevented from delivering a speech during a debate at the UCC university hospital in Cork by a small group of protesters, who objected to his support for euthanasia. This time the chant was, apparently, the Rosary. At any rate Professor Doyal was unable to speak and had to be escorted from the hall. And just to complete the picture, some time ago the British revisionist historian David Irving was unable to deliver a speech in NUI Galway in the face of major protests.

I don’t propose to comment here on the causes espoused by any of these speakers. My question is what the status of free speech should be in today’s society, and if there are limits, how do we identify these and who decides.

Freedom of speech is almost certainly the cornerstone of democracy. The right and the ability to say what we want to say, however uncomfortable it may be and whatever the consequences, is indispensable to freedom more generally. All dictators will seek to restrict free speech and the free availability of uncensored information as their very first measure.

The problem with free speech is that some groups in society who are strongly committed to their own policies or messages easily become allergic to  freedom of speech when exercised by those who oppose them.  The ‘no free speech for Fascists’ slogan was a convenient basis, occasionally, for seeking censorship of a whole array of views that were anywhere on the political spectrum from just right of the extreme left; I remember it being argued once that Denis Healey (then a Labour Minister in the UK Callaghan government in the 1970s) should be prevented from speaking as he was a ‘Fascist’. And I’m afraid that, whatever my views may be on euthanasia (and I have very strong reservations about it), ‘Youth Defence‘ has other targets in its list of demons that I would find worthy of support. or at least of dispassionate analysis. I would cvertainly not want this group to determine what may or may not be debated in Ireland.

As the opening examples illustrate, these skirmishes are more often than not fought out on a university campus. Universities have a particular obligation to ensure the availability and dissemination of information and views. And yet they are also guardians of values such as tolerance and respect for minority rights, some of which are resisted by those seeking to exercise their freedom of speech.

So how do we overcome all these contradictions and dilemmas? I think it is my view that if we have any confidence at all in the maturity and durability of our democracy we should allow freedom of speech without restriction. I say this in part because once we restrict this right, we are bound to be on a slippery slope. If we allow, say,  Youth Defence to set the agenda on euthanasia, we may be suggesting to them that they can do the same on other topics, and free speech becomes whatever the various bullies out there allow others to say. We must accept that freedom of speech will sometimes protect those who are saying objectionable things (including support for euthanasia), but we should feel that our society is strong enough not to be seduced by them. I believe that we should always err on the side of free speech.

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5 Comments on “Speaking freely”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Just to correct one point, David Irving’s proposed visit to NUIG has not taken place yet.

  2. cormac Says:

    Re “we should allow freedom of speech without restriction”
    Surely absolute rights never really work? After all, you are not entirely free to shout fire in the absence of fire, or libel your neighbour in the absence of evidence.
    This debate has become very important in the area of climate science. In the US in particular, lobby groups, skeptics and genuine dissenters have become much more vocal than the large majority of scientists who accept the evidence for man-made warming. Faced with a general population who cannot disciminate between good science and bogus, it very difficult for a democratic government to take action on carbon emissions.Hence, it is not impossible that free (uninformed or biased) speech could cost us the planet…regards Cormac

    • Interesting comment, Cormac. I would still argue that freedom of speech must cover the freedom to say things that are plain wrong – otherwise what does it mean at all, and who would determine what is right and wrong?

  3. […] interesting blogger, Irish Times columnist, and oh not incidentally President of DCU) summed up a university’s dilemma in such circumstances: Universities have a particular obligation to ensure the availability and […]

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