How fundamental is free speech fundamentalism?

The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has, particularly after the dust settled a little, prompted (as some might have expected) more detailed debate about the nature and limits of free speech in a liberal democratic society. Some of the debate, as we’ll get to in a moment, concerns free speech in an academic or university setting. But let us look first at the wider issues.

Immediately following the events in Paris there were demonstrations all over the world to reaffirm the right of journalists and commentators to offer their views, however uncomfortable or indeed offensive these might be, without having to fear for their lives. Je suis Charlie became the banner of this movement.

But not everyone joined in. The journalist Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, questioned the credentials of ‘free speech fundamentalists’:

‘None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed.’

So is free speech protected only to the extent that it is not prohibited or discouraged, as that quote would suggest? If that were so, would it amount to much? And in particular, who is the arbiter of ‘taste and decency’? Is my objection to someone saying something enough to put that statement out of bounds? Do I have, as has been debated for a while now, a ‘right not to be offended’?

For those of us working in higher education, this raises particularly complex issues. Most of our institutions have, thankfully, students and staff from a large number of countries and cultures. While inviting them to learn and to engage with scholarship, we also try to present them with an hospitable and supportive environment. People away from home can be particularly vulnerable, and we should recognise that. But again, what does this mean when it comes to the substance of debate, in particular where that substance may be uncomfortable to some?

The website Spiked Online has now produced a league table of UK universities that ranks them according to their attitude to freedom of speech and to censorship. It suggests that 23 universities (including mine) have a ‘hands-off approach to free speech’, 45 have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, and 47 have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’. Those universities that do not, in the view of the compilers of this survey, support free speech have in many cases banned offensive speech or taken similar measures, such as excluding speakers from the campus where their views were not considered appropriate.

It is easy to feel that universities must not allow students and others to be made uncomfortable on the campus when others attack their beliefs or their ethos. On the other hand, universities are places where knowledge should be pursued regardless of whether that knowledge pleases or disturbs people. Censorship on the campus in one context may undermine scholarly integrity in another.

It is easy to agree with Mehdi Hasan, as I do, that some lines should not be crossed by considerate people. I would hate to offend someone’s deeply held convictions, assuming these convictions are within the law. But I would also hate to be part of something that confines academic investigation to things that do not bother anyone. Censorship on the campus is not something we should want to see grow, not least because the expression and the challenging of our opinions and views is, fundamentally, the thing that matters most in scholarship.

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12 Comments on “How fundamental is free speech fundamentalism?”

  1. This is a strangely asymmetric discussion. I am offended by the belief, freely expressed by many in Scotland, that I deserve eternal torture because I reject Jesus. But no one imagines for an instant that people should refrain from expressing this belief, nor would I have them do so.

    We have laws against libel, incitement to violence, and (more controversially) hate speech. Beyond that, excessively blunt expressions of opinion may be bad manners, or bad tactics, but suppression by University authorities, of all people, is betrayal.

  2. Vincent Says:

    The great danger is that we kowtow to the freedom of speech isn’t absolute gang for at what point and who exactly says this is OK but this isn’t.
    Voltaire called this when he said that he might disagree but would defend to the death someones Right to say it.
    As to the students hearing or reading that which is objectionable. Well that’s what they’re there for. Frankly if they got more meat and not pap they might leave the precincts of the academy with a notion of their Rights and Responsibilities and not be flotsam upon a sea of media excrement.

  3. Elizabeth Spencer Says:

    Freedom of speech does have legal implications if it encourages hate speech. Calling a black person ‘Negro’ is unlawful on account of the history of abuse associated with it. Who decides that it is unlawful? – civilised people who do not like to offend another person because of the colour of their skin. In the same manner, if a person’s personal beliefs are targeted, that person would become vulnerable to the attack of students who uses their vulnerability to bully that person. A university culture that victimises a student to uphold freedom of speech that helps bullying should be discouraged. On account of the Charlie hebdo disaster, muslims students or any belief system shouldn’t be targeted in the universities, or their personal belief system ridiculed. We should not encourage a culture of ‘Freedom of Speech’ that incite hate or bullying in our campus.

    • That sounds perfectly reasonable until you start looking for a definition of ‘hate speech’. Nobody wants to encourage bullying, but equally we need to ensure that complaints of bullying are not just a cover for censorship.

      • lizpspencer Says:

        Freedom of speech is a human’s basic right but it also means we should take responsibility for our words and actions. Laws are in place to moderate hate speech and show justice. If we have unregulated free speech that is not contested, then we fail as a fair society. Bullying is the result of brash speech given with an intention to victimise a person. And we should always have a society that can disagree with irresponsible speech and make people aware that using free speech with the intention of bullying is not accepted in our universities. Censorship is required but should not be seen as an impediment to free speech. In fact censorship with the intention of implementing safeguarding policies to protect the vunerable, and giving the speaker the right to argue in a committee that their speech was not given with an intention of malice, makes a person accountable for his words. Every case is going to be different, but if we do not have that level of safeguarding then trolling will be legal again.

        • Worse and worse. “Censorship is required but should not be seen as an impediment to free speech. In fact censorship with the intention of implementing safeguarding policies to protect the vunerable, and giving the speaker the right to argue in a committee that their speech was not given with an intention of malice, makes a person accountable for his words.”

          “Vulnerable” is a slippery term, and I would welcome an opertional definition of “victimising”. I would rather be called a dirty Jew (as I have been) than have in place a hate speech law, or even a University code of practice, that imposes penalties for doing so. And the idea of summoning the person who uttered such words to testify to their intent in front of a committee seems to me grotesque. Of course I am accountable for my words; they affect my friendships and my reputation. And of course incitement to violence is, and should be, a crime, but this is not what we seem to be talking about here,

          • Elizabeth Spencer Says:

            To be called a Dirty Jew- I would rather I never hear a person generalising a whole faction of the society for one person who is dirty.

            My argument is that freedom of speech should not become an excuse to bully anyone. Hence, in universities it would be wise to have training that would enlighten the students of the consequences of using slanderous words to describe a fellow student or faction, group or such. Using civilised words to disagree is welcome, but using derrogatory terms to bully shouldn’t be encouraged in the name of FOS. No one is going to stop freespeech, but one should know the consequences.

    • ” if a person’s personal beliefs are targeted, that person would become vulnerable to the attack of students who uses [sic] their vulnerability to bully that person.” I don’t understand. I think homoeopathy is ridiculous. Should I refrain from saying so in case that in some mysterious way induces students who share my view to bully anyone who believes in homoeopathy? And if those *are* the rules of the game, how can I ever express disagreement with anyone? And if only some beliefs are to be protected as “personal”, which ones, why, and on whose say-so?

  4. anna notaro Says:

    And what about the case of Steven Salaita an academic whose comments on the state of Israel have costed him dearly, and still his ‘freedom of speech’ appears to be curtailed by some university’s donors? See

  5. cormac Says:

    I’m much more interested in a slightly different version of this argument. Does one have the right to assert something that is demonstrably untrue? It always amazes me that I can be prosecuted for wrongly asserting that my neighbour stole my cat, but there is no law against claiming that the earth is flat and the moon is a piece of cheese.Such assertions can do tremendous damage to society, from voodoo economics to climate change denial…just have a look at this for example

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