Free speech within reason

Constantine Sandis is disturbed by a claim that academics have the right to say what they want at all times, in all places

January 21, 2010

A colleague teaching in Kuwait recently got into trouble for making a moderate remark about religion. My search for a campaign designed to help people in her situation quickly led me to Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF).

Initially eager to join, I was soon taken aback by its claim that academics have a right to speak freely at all times and places (both inside and outside the lecture theatre), irrespective of any harm or offence that this may cause.

Even on the contentious assumption that we are all entitled to an absolute right to speak as we please, the right to freedom of speech amounts to no more than the right to be allowed some public platform upon which we may express ourselves.

The term "some" is crucial here, for it is a mistake to equate the absolute right to freedom of speech with the right to unconstrained expression in any situation whatsoever. The right to say whatever you want whenever you want is not the right to say it wherever you want.

Consider the theatre usher who constantly gives in to a need to express himself freely in the middle of a production, or the rail adviser who frequently acts upon the assumption that his right to free speech includes the right to misinform all customers who inquire about train-departure times. Would their employers not have good grounds for firing them?

Similar rules apply to academics. Suppose a history lecturer systematically maintains that the Second World War never happened or that the Crusades took place in 1986, and responds with coarse verbal abuse to anybody who dares to challenge her. It would be plain silly to suggest that her union and/or employer ought to protect her right to do so in the name of free speech.

"Yes, but where does one draw the censoring line?", defenders of so-called "academic freedom" are prone to ask. To be sure, there will be borderline cases and grey areas, yet it would be as fallacious to conclude from this that no case is clear-cut as it would be to conclude that there are no such things as heaps or adolescents because there are no determinate answers to questions such as "how many grains make a heap?" or "at what precise second does a child become an adolescent?"

Common sense dictates that we have no right to treat any and all situations as one of the platforms on which we may express ourselves freely. In denying this, AFAF perverts our ordinary use of the expression "freedom of speech" and engages in a form of doublespeak that masks the fact that handing lecturers the right to misinform is tantamount to giving them a green light to brainwash.

Given that thought is generally constrained by prior belief, unimpeded academic freedom has the dangerous consequence of preventing students from nurturing the ability to think freely. It also eliminates all possibility of exercising any kind of quality control within education.

Perhaps at some level even AFAF recognises that some constraints are needed. Remarkably, for an organisation whose founder, Dennis Hayes, condones "unimpeded inquiry and expression" ("Academic freedom means free speech and no 'buts'", The Free Society, 4 March 2008) and claims that children should be subjected to their teachers' views "no matter how offensive" ("Let extremists have their say in class", Times Educational Supplement, 26 September 2008), AFAF does not permit people to comment on its website without first signing its Statement of Academic Freedom:

"We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom:

(1) That academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive; and

(2) That academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal."

If this is not a restriction of academics' liberties, I don't know what is.

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