Posted tagged ‘freedom of speech’

Culture wars on American campuses?

December 8, 2015

As we all know, youtube videos can go viral, and here is one that has done so recently. It shows an exchange of views – if we can call it that – at Yale University. Should you wish to learn a little about the background to this incident, you can read it here. And finally, here is another account from a participant of sorts, published in the Washington Post.

Should you not wish to read the stories, here is a short summary. A Yale academic, Erika Christakis, sent out an email in which she reflected on the potential benefits of students and others being allowed to express themselves (in this case in the choice of Halloween costumes) in ways that could include being ‘a little bit inappropriate or provocative’. Some students took offence at the email, and this in turn led to the recorded confrontation between Dr Christakis’s husband (who was defending the email) and some students.

The question that all this raises is one I have covered before in this blog – whether there is on a university campus (or for that matter, anywhere else) a right not to be offended. Do universities have an obligation to ensure that no one is troubled or disturbed by what they see or hear? And of course, how does all of this affect freedom of speech?

Of course universities do have a duty of care towards their students, including a duty to ensure that students are not the victims of discrimination or bullying and that they can learn in an environment that encourages them and supports them. I do not believe, however, that universities are obliged to ensure that no student ever hears anything they do not like, or that they never meet anyone who disagrees with them. Intellectual inquiry is about hearing every point of view, even offensive ones.

As a result of the backlash against her email, Erika Christakis resigned from her Yale University teaching post. That, I would suggest, was not a good day for the university.

The right to offend?

February 25, 2014

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.

The perils of free speech in the academy

April 2, 2013

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.

Academic lefties, pinkos and liberal do-gooders

December 29, 2010

Are universities and colleges full of left wing radicals, ready to undermine the establishment at every turn? Well, that’s pretty much the view of a US organisation called, which says that it is ‘designed to provide conservative activists with the resources, networking capabilities, and skills they need to revolutionize the struggle against leftist bias and abuse on college campuses.’

Campusreform has taken a look at the 100 top rated US universities and has ‘unmasked’ the great liberal/left conspiracies in each of them. None of them escape, though you’d wonder at some of the ‘revelations’. Harvard for example offers courses and research in climate change, apparently evidence of unacceptable liberalism.

My own experience suggests that things are far more balanced than that. In Ireland certainly, the best known academic commentators come from the right or centre right. That didn’t however stop one of these complaining to me recently that all the universities had been overrun by the left.

Does it matter which political views gather a majority of supporters from the academic community? It is of course important (as I have said here before) to guard against indoctrination, but in my experience students are well able to detect political prejudices and to make discounts for them. Everyone else should take a deep breath and let this topic go.

Regulating speech on the internet?

August 4, 2010

When I was a law student in the mid-1970s, libel was a straightforward enough concept. Well actually, it was of course fairly complex, but nevertheless it was clear that the purpose of the law was to give a remedy to anyone who had been the subject of untruthful and damaging comment that had been published to third parties. What made it an effective cause of action for anyone damaged in this way was that the publication was always likely to involve a major corporate publisher whose pockets would be deep enough should a case be won: typically a book publisher or  newspaper.

The problem with libel laws however was that someone with a lot of resources could sufficiently frighten a publisher by holding out the prospect of years of expensive litigation with an uncertain outcome. Faced with the prospect of this, newspapers and publishers were often tempted to take the easier and less expensive route of not publishing whatever the potential plaintiff objected to, even where the proposed publication was true and the putative plaintiff’s case had little merit.

Then came the internet, and everything changed. Nowadays everyone with a computer and an internet connection can publish anything they like at the click of a mouse. It is extremely easy and cheap. No major publisher or newspaper is needed for this. The crankiest and craziest of individuals with the most absurd chip on their shoulder can instantly take their case into the public domain. And if anyone is wronged, they may then be forced to take off on a wild goose chase as they try to find out where in the world, and under what defamation laws if any, the thing was actually published. They may also find that the person or organisation owning the server or hardware which facilitated the publication has protected themselves effectively (or at any rate may appear to have done so) from any liability for what the author has said. And they may find that the perhaps anonymous author cannot be traced at all.

So now, as night follows day, there will be increasingly aggressive attempts to find ways of creating effective legal liability that will allow people who have been damaged online to find redress. Equally, there will be energetic campaigns to protect the freedom of the internet and its status as a location where regulation is minimal or non-existent and where people can say things that are unsayable anywhere else. Close legal regulation of the internet is something that is seen by many as the end of the web as an interesting source of information and a place of free interaction, not least because some authorities may have more sinister things in mind than just giving redress to the unfairly wronged.

I confess I find it difficult to imagine that the idea of the unregulated internet can survive, as there are many powerful people and organisations who will want to bring order into all this. And in truth it is hard to argue that someone should be allowed to use the web to destroy another’s reputation with false assertions, rumours and lies. And yet… free speech is the right that perhaps most particularly protects democracy and freedom, and the opportunity for people to bypass powerful publishing interests and make information available without excessive risk is at the heart of that. In addition, many people write fairly casually on the internet – as for example on Twitter – and don’t expect what they write innocently to become subject-matter for detailed legal interpretation.  And others may want to write reviews of good or services without fear of legal reprisal, or make a case freely where they feel they have been wronged.

I shall be interested to see whether some form of regulation can be found that does not compromise legitimate attempts to publish views and information. But if as I suspect such a framework is unavailable, I remain on the side of free speech. I guess.

Speaking freely

April 14, 2009

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I attended a debate at an Irish university. One of the speakers that night was to be a British politician who was a supporter of the former Conservative (and just turned Unionist) Enoch Powell. Just as the politician in question rose to speak, a group of students jumped up and started shouting, ‘no free speech for Fascists!’ This went on with rising volume, and in the end the man was unable to begin his speech, and the debate ended in confusion. The group concerned – which I believe (though I may be misremembering this) was organised by the ‘Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist)’ – expressed itself satisfied.

Different cause, same tactics: as many will know, a UK academic, Professor Len Doyal, was recently prevented from delivering a speech during a debate at the UCC university hospital in Cork by a small group of protesters, who objected to his support for euthanasia. This time the chant was, apparently, the Rosary. At any rate Professor Doyal was unable to speak and had to be escorted from the hall. And just to complete the picture, some time ago the British revisionist historian David Irving was unable to deliver a speech in NUI Galway in the face of major protests.

I don’t propose to comment here on the causes espoused by any of these speakers. My question is what the status of free speech should be in today’s society, and if there are limits, how do we identify these and who decides.

Freedom of speech is almost certainly the cornerstone of democracy. The right and the ability to say what we want to say, however uncomfortable it may be and whatever the consequences, is indispensable to freedom more generally. All dictators will seek to restrict free speech and the free availability of uncensored information as their very first measure.

The problem with free speech is that some groups in society who are strongly committed to their own policies or messages easily become allergic to  freedom of speech when exercised by those who oppose them.  The ‘no free speech for Fascists’ slogan was a convenient basis, occasionally, for seeking censorship of a whole array of views that were anywhere on the political spectrum from just right of the extreme left; I remember it being argued once that Denis Healey (then a Labour Minister in the UK Callaghan government in the 1970s) should be prevented from speaking as he was a ‘Fascist’. And I’m afraid that, whatever my views may be on euthanasia (and I have very strong reservations about it), ‘Youth Defence‘ has other targets in its list of demons that I would find worthy of support. or at least of dispassionate analysis. I would cvertainly not want this group to determine what may or may not be debated in Ireland.

As the opening examples illustrate, these skirmishes are more often than not fought out on a university campus. Universities have a particular obligation to ensure the availability and dissemination of information and views. And yet they are also guardians of values such as tolerance and respect for minority rights, some of which are resisted by those seeking to exercise their freedom of speech.

So how do we overcome all these contradictions and dilemmas? I think it is my view that if we have any confidence at all in the maturity and durability of our democracy we should allow freedom of speech without restriction. I say this in part because once we restrict this right, we are bound to be on a slippery slope. If we allow, say,  Youth Defence to set the agenda on euthanasia, we may be suggesting to them that they can do the same on other topics, and free speech becomes whatever the various bullies out there allow others to say. We must accept that freedom of speech will sometimes protect those who are saying objectionable things (including support for euthanasia), but we should feel that our society is strong enough not to be seduced by them. I believe that we should always err on the side of free speech.