Forget ‘free speech’ on campus, this debate is about free people

Efforts to reduce hate speech on campus risk undermining the rights of people to express themselves freely as well, argues Chris Martin

June 5, 2018
Freedom of speech stamp
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It has now become customary for academics to debate the line between free speech and hate speech. Yale, for instance, recently hosted a panel discussion whose central topic was the difference between hate speech and free speech and “the point where one shifts into the other.”

The distinction has already been debated throughout the academy, with university presidents, students on both coasts, and even linguist George Lakoff asserting that hate speech is not free speech (in other words, that hate speech should be censored).

This framing of the debate – as a distinction between free speech and hate speech – is unfortunate. “Hate speech” is fundamentally a type of speech or a mode of discourse. Whether or not speech is hateful depends on the intention of the speaker, or at times, the effects that it has on its audience. “Hate speech” can be meaningfully juxtaposed against other phenomena in this family, such as “political” or “controversial” speech  – whether or not speech is “political” or “controversial” depends strongly on the intent and context of the utterance). However, “free speech” is not a type of speech in this way.

The term “free speech” probably comes from the US Bill of Rights, which is concerned with delineating rights that the government does not have. The first amendment declares that Congress has no right to pass laws abridging freedom of speech. Here, “freedom of speech” refers to the freedom of people to speak without governmental interference.

Rather than consistently referring to people, however, we customarily shorten “freedom of people to speak” to “free speech.” Although punchy, this shortening suggests that it is speech, rather than people, that can be free or unfree. But in fact, restrictions on speech are restrictions on people. Consequently, we ought to be having a debate about people.

Now, one might (incorrectly) believe that freedom of speech only helps the powerful. One might (incorrectly) believe that students’ views are easily swayed by allegedly immoral speakers. One might feel a sense of obligation to protect students from the stress or hurt that they might feel when confronted with provocative views.

Nonetheless, when we empower and encourage administrators to determine what forms of speech are acceptable on campus, our own freedoms are undermined.

Any academic rule that abridges the freedom of speech enhances the ability of others to exercise arbitrary power over us. We are demoted from a “free” to a “censored” (or at least, “censorable”) status. And, as progressives are rediscovering, bureaucrats and administrators interested in maintaining a pristine brand for their institution are perhaps more likely to censor provocative people on the left than on the right when empowered to do so.  

Therefore, regardless of your own political commitments, ask yourself: when do you want administrators to have the right to censor you? Keep in mind that granting them the power to censor you implies permission to surveil as well, monitoring what you write in emails, what you post on Twitter, and your interactions with university stakeholders, both on campus and beyond.

These realities become much clearer when the discussion is shifted from discussing “free speech” to undermining the rights of people to express themselves freely. Restrictions aren’t being imposed on speech – they’re being imposed on people.

Faculty, consider when it is appropriate for your colleagues or your dean to regulate your freedom before you request the disinvitation of someone else. And when you get involved in a campus discussion about this issue, please discard “free speech” and talk about free people instead. I suspect the conversations will be much richer and more productive.

Chris Martin is a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). He received his PhD in sociology from Emory University and serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy.

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