The right to offend?
Every so often in this blog – indeed about once a year – I am driven to write about freedom of speech. Free speech is one of the building blocks of real intellectual endeavour; without it scholarship has no integrity.
Every so often some academic will test this and will make it harder for the rest of us to stay true to our principles. Last year for example I referred to the extraordinary suggestion by a professor from the University of Rochester that the rape of an unconscious woman produced ‘no direct physical harm’ and therefore perhaps nothing to interest the law.
This year it’s a professor from Loyola University in New Orleans. Professor Walter Bock, a libertarian economist and (for those who may understand the significance of the name) a member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, delivered himself of various comments not exactly in tune with modern principles of equality and diversity. Slavery, he suggested, was flawed because a slave’s status was not voluntary, but ‘otherwise … wasn’t so bad’. He also declared that shops should be allowed to refuse to serve black customers because ‘no one is compelled to associate with people against their will.’
Not unexpectedly his colleagues, or many of them, have not been very supportive. with the University’s President publicly criticising Professor Bock, and with a number of academics signing a letter condemning his statements.
Personally I would not hesitate to say that Professor Bock’s comments are outrageous, and I hope that no-one will be persuaded by them. But should he be censured, or indeed should university processes be used to compel him to desist from making them again? That I find more difficult. In fact, I am in a small way disappointed by the actions of the 17 faculty members who signed the letter.
What Professor Bock said was offensive. But part of the objectives of the academy must be to nurture debate, and to protect the right of those who wish to make critical comments. We cannot restrict that protection to those with whom we are inclined to agree, nor can we draw some arbitrary line beyond which those exercising their right to free speech may not go. Universities of all places must accept the value of free speech, with as few restrictions as possible. Bad taste, bad politics, bad moral perspectives even, should not invalidate the right. And those who find someone’s speech to be offensive should engage them in argument, not subject them to censorship. That should be our mission.