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.

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3 Comments on “The right to offend?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    *Every so often in this blog – indeed about once a year – I am driven to write about freedom of speech.*

    Yes, that does seem to be the case, I recall this moral dilemma from February 2011 (nothing like February to get the moral juices going :)). Coincidentally, the issue debated then has some affinities with the one of slavery, at least contemporary definitions of it (human trafficking, bonded labour and so forth debated today.

    Professor Block’s outrageous views expressed (purposefully?) during black history month prove, should it be needed, that we are far from living in a post-racial society ( Also, Block’s ‘revisionist’ views regarding slavery are by no means unique, they pop up fairly frequently, either from a so called ‘libertarian’ context or a religious one, as in the case of the ones put forward by ‘liberal’ clerics (

    What strikes me as somewhat ironic about the Block’s case is that his blind faith in the market (“He argues that market forces would ultimately have led various entities to treat black and white people equally”), might be exactly the reason for market-oriented universities to censor views that do not fall in line with their ‘corporate image’, their brand, their mission. The issue of academic freedom includes of course not only the more ‘private’ dimension of what is taught in the classroom, but also a more public one, see for example the reaction to the social media policy adopted by the Kansas Board of Regents recently, according to which faculty and other employees may be suspended, dismissed or terminated from employment for “improper use of social media” (

    When universities are run as if they were a business like any other and there is so much at stake, in monetary terms, for any loss of image or similar considerations then it is not so surprisingly that perceiving themselves as special places where freedom of speech can flourish becomes the exception and not the rule.

  2. Martin O'Grady Says:

    You are entirely correct. It is easy to allow freedom of speech to those with whom we agree or find uncontroversial or inoffensive. The principle is only vindicated when we accept the freedom of others to say things we find distasteful and contrary to our own senses of logic and propriety. The point is that, in so far as views are concerned, none of us has the power to be arbiters of truth. Strongly held feelings even if shared by the majority do not add up to a guarantee of truth no matter how convinced we may be.

  3. carlb3 Says:


    I wholeheartedly agree that support for views we find unobjectionable is not support for freedom of speech at all and I share your views on the right to offend. However, I believe that Walter Block’s thoughts on slavery have been widely misunderstood and misrepresented. The fault is partly Block’s, for expressing himself badly and attempting to be casually ironic in an interview on a serious subject, and partly the NYTimes reporter’s, for selectively quoting Block out of context. As I understood Block, he was saying that he believed that the evils of slavery derived from denying the institution’s victims control over their persons, expressed through freedom of association. The notorious “otherwise … wasn’t so bad” aside seems to me, if read in context, clearly a clumsy attempt to refer to popular stereotypes in a cute and sarcastic manner. Speaking in this way certainly showed bad judgment (especially considering it was in an interview) and it detracted from a legitimate, if highly debatable, line of argument. Everything Block has said regarding the interview supports my interpretation, I think.

    Ultimately, we can support the free exchange of ideas not only by not trying to silence and censure those that we find highly objectionable, but also by trying to carefully understand different opinions, rather than by letting ourselves be carried away by outrage.

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