The perils of free speech in the academy
As I have suggested previously in this blog, universities can have a hard time with the concept of freedom of speech. On the one hand, it is one of the key liberal intellectual values, and therefore something the academy will want to prize. On the other hand, those who exercise it may have less than wholesome messages to share, some of which may seriously offend liberal values. When this happens, the university can get nervous about protecting the rights of the people concerned.
Take the latest example. A graduate of Princeton University, Susan Patton, wrote a letter to the Daily Princetonian student newspaper in which she exhorted female students to use their time in the university wisely; by which she meant, get a husband. I’m not going to get into the details of what she said – if you want, you can read it here – but it would be fair to say that her advice, and more particularly the elaboration of that advice, wouldn’t be likely to go down well with anyone who believes in a modern concept of gender equality. Indeed many – myself included – might find it quite offensive.
In fact Ms Patton’s letter has gone viral, and so have the opinions about it, few of them supportive; though amazingly there are exceptions. But the drift of some of the online commentary has been that such views should not find a place in a university publication. For what it’s worth, the Daily Princetonian, finding itself suddenly on the world stage and the subject of attention in the controversy, probably wouldn’t agree, not even (indeed maybe particularly not) with hindsight.
But just while we’re on controversial speech in an academic setting, there have been other very recent examples. Almost certainly the most offensive we’re likely to find in recent contributions in the academy was the suggestion by one Steven Landsburg, professor at the University of Rochester, that if a woman were raped while unconscious she might suffer ‘no direct physical harm’; so he questions whether this would be a proper concern of the law at all. Again, outrage followed the statement, with questions raised about whether the university could in conscience continue to employ him.
These are not easy issues to address. If freedom of speech is an important civilised value – which it undoubtedly is – should it protect those whose intentions are anything but civilised? There are of course statements that the law will never protect, notwithstanding freedom of speech: exhortations to commit crimes, for example, or assertions that are fraudulent. But should it stop short of protecting those that are offensive? And more particularly, should universities give platform space to such opinions?
While I occasionally find myself grappling with this kind of issue, in the end we cannot be censors, because what we find offensive may just offend us, but be obviously correct to others. The academy has to let all this live and should rely on intellectual discourse and analysis to deal with the issues raised. If we compromise on any part of the element of freedom in free speech, we have fatally compromised the integrity of a free society. And we should not do that, however awful the statements we are hearing.