Campus Critics Are Wrong About Free Speech

The loudest argument against what has been pejoratively labelled the ’safe space mafia’ is that student protestors — such as those that tried to un-invite Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University — are preventing freedom of speech. It’s a claim that relies on a ludicrously broad definition of freedom of speech. Most of the critics probably know that, and are just employing it is a rhetorical device. Others may want to think harder about what they are implying.

Freedom of speech, commonly understood, describes someone’s right to say what they want without outside interference or punishment. We can find appalling denials of freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia, and in Thailand, where a man was recently jailed for a Facebook post mocking the King. Had Germaine Greer been equally threatened with jail or violence then the outrage would be justified, but she wasn’t; protestors just wanted her uninvited from speaking at their university.

Publishers decide who they want to feature in their magazine. Event organisers decide who they want to put on stage. If they don’t want to feature someone, they don’t have to — just as you might not want someone to walk into your home and, let’s say, lecture you on the cruelty of meat eating while you’re having a roast dinner with your family. As long as we still believe in private property, it’s your right to lock the door. Or to block someone on Twitter.

Some might suggest that students have no authority to determine who should or should not speak at their university. There might be a worthy debate there, but it’s not a debate about free speech — it’s a debate about the way universities are managed. Should academics and administrators have absolute authority over who the university welcomes? Is there a role for democracy in such decisions? How much influence should the government have over academic affairs and university invitations?

Until recently, the answer was fairly straight-forward: educational institutions were run by educators. Now it’s not so simple. Universities are cash strapped, overpopulated, and, if the government is to be believed, hotbeds for extremism. The power that academics hold over educational institutions and intellectual thought is in jeopardy, and student protestors are an easy target.

There are times when an appeal to free speech can be justified on campus, for instance when university staff or students are threatened with discipline action for speaking their minds. But any moral condemnation would still need to be weighed against what’s known as the Harm Principle. As the English philosopher John Stuart Mill put it, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This is what makes ‘hate speech’, such as racism, socially unacceptable.

The online magazine, Spiked, which recently published a ‘Free Speech University Rankings’, doesn’t seem to recognise the Harm Principle. Its ranking is strictly one-dimensional, penalising universities for placing “restrictions on racist and sexist speech”, and ‘examining’ university policies that exist to promote equal opportunities and protect staff and students from bullying and harassment. Policies deemed to have offensive wording were penalised irrespective of how they were enforced.

While Spiked’s ranking system may help publicise discussion about the relationship between liberty and welfare, any suggestion that it might worth consideration as a serious system of ranking institutions can be laid to rest by its claim that there are twelve institutions completely free from “restrictions on free speech and expression”. I suspect that each of these recipients of the coveted ‘green light’ would be quick to correct any claims that they have no internal policies against expressions of racism, sexism and aggressive intolerance.

I don’t think the Spiked editors, or any of the academics using the free speech argument, need to read up on John Stuart Mill to understand the limitations of their claim. While some critics are probably concealing unsavoury right-wing views behind their appeals to freedom of speech, Spiked’s primary concern seems to be personal autonomy. Why not focus on that? There are certainly many that would relate to concerns about a “therapeutic state” intent on ‘medicalising personal problems’. Perhaps safe spaces are indeed a symptom of that, as Brendan O’Neill claims, but if we move the conversation there then what’s his answer to rising numbers of students waiting for counselling services, and an increase in suicide rates? What’s your answer?

To date, most of the writings on free speech in higher education seem bizarrely intent on denying the relationship between personal liberties and collective welfare. An article in the Guardian on Sunday said that “universities are meant to be guardians of debate”, and that’s true, but they are also meant to be guardians for the health and security of tens of thousands of young adults. Their failures are forcing action from students.

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