Uni no place for free-speech ab­so­lutism

The New Zealand Herald - - Editorial & Letters - David Hall Dr David Hall is se­nior re­searcher at the Pol­icy Ob­ser­va­tory, AUT. He has a D.Phil in pol­i­tics from the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

Free-speech ab­so­lutism is threat­en­ing to storm our uni­ver­si­ties. But like other bad ideas, this is pre­cisely where it should be snuffed out. Uni­ver­si­ties are not spheres of free, un­reg­u­lated speech. As the lib­eral philoso­pher Bernard Wil­liams once noted, “Peo­ple can­not come in from out­side, speak when they feel like it, make end­less ir­rel­e­vant, or in­sult­ing, in­ter­ven­tions . . . and no one thinks things would go bet­ter in the di­rec­tion of truth if they could.”

No, aca­demic speech is highly reg­u­lated — and usu­ally for good rea­son.

If you give a sci­en­tist your opin­ion, and she re­sponds by say­ing, “That’s fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect and in­con­sis­tent with all avail­able ev­i­dence”, you shouldn’t treat this as a free pass. She’s telling you to stop say­ing some­thing be­cause it isn’t true.

She isn’t “ban­ning” or “cen­sor­ing” you. But nor is her ad­mo­ni­tion with­out force. If she’s your teacher, she’s warn­ing you she may fail your es­say. If she’s your peer re­viewer, she’s warn­ing you she may re­ject your man­u­script. Un­less you’ve got a par­a­digm-shift­ing ar­gu­ment up your sleeve, you’re about to be shown the door.

With­out the means for re­strict­ing bad ar­gu­ment — such as var­i­ous log­ics, norms, meth­ods, and bod­ies of ev­i­dence — hu­man knowl­edge couldn’t make the progress it does. It would have no way to sort true from false, rel­e­vant from ir­rel­e­vant, sound from un­sound, eth­i­cal from un­eth­i­cal. It would be a del­uge of un­sorted and largely use­less in­for­ma­tion.

What free-speech ab­so­lutists get right is that truth-seek­ing in­volves the con­test of ideas. But what they get wrong, or re­main con­struc­tively am­bigu­ous about, is what hap­pens next.

At times the ab­so­lutists seem to be­lieve free­dom of ex­pres­sion en­tails free­dom from con­se­quences. At other times, they seem to be­lieve speech can, and should be, free from a wider con­text of rules, re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and in­sti­tu­tions.

Professor Paul Moon, a mem­ber of the Free Speech Coali­tion (NZ Her­ald, June 26), sin­cerely and pas­sion­ately de­fended the view that free speech is “the best means we have of at­tain­ing the truth”. He ap­pealed to John Mil­ton’s im­por­tant cri­tique of state cen­sor­ship, Are­opagit­ica, which cel­e­brates the ideal of “free and open en­counter”.

But Moon doesn’t men­tion that Mil­ton qual­i­fies this, draw­ing bound­aries around who should be in­cluded. He ex­cludes “Pop­ery or open su­per­sti­tion”, be­cause it is cor­ro­sive to “civil suprema­cies”. He also ex­cludes those who are “im­pi­ous or evil ab­so­lutely ei­ther against faith or man­ners”. For Mil­ton, free speech needs to be closed off from those who would de­grade the knowl­edge en­ter­prise.

In the cen­turies since lib­er­al­ism evolved away from Mil­ton’s sec­tar­i­an­ism to­ward ever-greater inclusivit­y. Yet the un­der­ly­ing thought has per­se­vered: Civil so­ci­ety, in or­der to flour­ish, must be able to ex­clude ac­tors who would un­der­mine that ci­vil­ity. It’s why John Stu­art Mill ar­gues that: “The lib­erty of the individual must be thus far lim­ited; he must not make him­self a nui­sance to other peo­ple.”

When rights are vi­o­lated, le­gal pun­ish­ment is war­ranted, but when peo­ple’s in­ter­ests are at stake, “the of­fender may then be justly pun­ished by opin­ion” — through ob­jec­tion, avoid­ance, os­tracism and the cau­tion­ing of others.

It’s why Karl Pop­per, as a refugee based at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury, said: “If we ex­tend un­lim­ited tol­er­ance even to those who are in­tol­er­ant, if we are not pre­pared to de­fend a tol­er­ant so­ci­ety against the on­slaught of the in­tol­er­ant, then the tol­er­ant will be de­stroyed, and tol­er­ance with them . . . We should, there­fore, claim, in the name of tol­er­ance, the right not to tol­er­ate the in­tol­er­ant.”

And it’s why the United Na­tions Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights be­gins not with “the right to free­dom of opin­ion and ex­pres­sion” (Ar­ti­cle 19), but with Ar­ti­cle 1: “All hu­man be­ings are born free and equal in dig­nity and rights.” And Ar­ti­cle 2: the right to be free from dis­crim­i­na­tion. And Ar­ti­cle 3: “Ev­ery­one has the right to life, lib­erty, and se­cu­rity of per­son.”

These rights aren’t just some­thing to bal­ance against free ex­pres­sion, but the base for a safe, in­clu­sive and eq­ui­table so­ci­ety al­low­ing ex­pres­sion for all.

Words and deeds that de­grade peo­ple or re­cruit others to il­lib­eral causes like white supremacy, are not in­tended as con­tri­bu­tions to truth­ful in­quiry. Even if they were, a univer­sity has no obli­ga­tion — in the name of free speech — to ac­com­mo­date them.

Peo­ple who ar­gue the con­trary are sim­ply try­ing to pre­vent what Mill called “the nat­u­ral . . . spon­ta­neous con­se­quences of the faults them­selves”.

Lib­er­als will only have them­selves to blame if they al­low this dogma to drain sup­port be­cause it wel­comed lib­er­al­ism’s en­e­mies with open arms.

Photo / File

Free­dom of speech at our uni­ver­si­ties should not open the door to un­truths and free­dom from con­se­quences.

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