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.

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6 Comments on “The perils of free speech in the academy”

  1. V.H Says:

    You don’t think it might be a bit of darn well written satire.

  2. While I believe that free speech is one of the indispensable building blocks of a free society, I feel I do want to add to the post above that I am somewhat disturbed at the almost casual sexism that has become increasingly common in society, and also in the academic world. The battle for equality of opportunity and of respect has by no means been won.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I am not sure that casual sexism has become ‘increasingly common’, as opposed to a past when it was less so, I would argue that sexism is a constant socio-historical feature and it derives strength from its capacity to metamorphosize, i.e. to evolve and adapt according to the circumstances.
      Reading Ms Patton’s letter was like reading an updated version of Pride and Prejudice (a book I have always disliked), only addressed to 21st century Princeton educated women. The incipit of the letter, “Forget about having it all, or not having it all, leaning in or leaning out — here’s what you really need to know that nobody is telling you” makes a reference to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In”, a kind of workplace feminism manifesto which has inspired a range of reactions from critics, some positive ( and some negative
      the latter ones are particularly interesting with regards to my argument of sexism’s adaptability, in that Sandberg’s book “teaches women more about how to serve their companies than it teaches companies about how to be fairer places for women to work”, in other words sexism is never really challenged, women are just required to ‘adapt’ their own Selves to it in order to be successful and have it all.

      When it comes to academia and free speech, I’m not sure whether any distinction could be drawn with society at large, as the post seems to imply, academia is a ‘special’ place for intellectual experimentation and testing boundaries, and yet the desire not to compromise on any part of the element of freedom in free speech should be the guiding one, no matter the context and I haven’t even touched on sexism in academia!

  3. cormac Says:

    Interesting post, as always.
    In science, the question of free speech is usually arises in the context of the individual vs the consensus. There is no restriction on an individual expressing an unorthodox opinion, but it is a hard slog to get it accepted, which is as it should be.
    This contrasts with the media, where unorthodox opinion tends to get above-average publicity (‘Einstein wrong’ gets headlines, ‘Einstein right’ does not).
    In climate science, the question ‘Does an individual have the right to shout FIRE in a cinema when there is no fire?, becomes ‘Does an individual have the right to contradict other cinema goers who smell fire?’ If he has no training in this area (or sense of smell) while they do, does he still have this right? if he does, is he liable if disaster occurs due to inaction?
    Tricky questions indeed

  4. kevin denny Says:

    To find Pattons comments offensive is pretty dumb in my view. She pointed out that being in Princeton is a relatively good time to find males who are of equally “high quality” , for want of a better word, and hence it makes sense to make the most of it. It’s perfectly reasonable, though you may disagree with it. It certainly doesn’t warrant the hysterical reaction by some feminists.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Ah, the good old *hysteria* is back when it comes to characterize ‘some feminists’ reactions, how surprising! This is exactly what I meant above as for sexism being an historical constant feature.
      For a quick history lesson: in the late 1800s whenever a housewife or a mistress got into a sexually-repressed fidgety funk, medical professionals of the time—men who knew less about female sexuality than a Pomeranian puppy does—would simply diagnose them as suffering from the ” feminine disorder, or a disturbance of femininity,(Freud), a term used to cover emotional instability and jittery behavior. (This diagnosis remained on the books at the American Psychiatric Association up until the early 1950s.)
      And if one is not exactly hysteric, she must be at least ‘dumb’ to see any problems in Patton’s letter!
      I would argue that the sexist underpinning of Patton’s letter resides in the fact that, as this commentator put it, she is ‘pushing women — and women alone — to define themselves by their spouses’.
      A similar letter addressed to a young man would be simply unthinkable!

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