Universities shouldn't host untruths

David Hall

08 Oct 2019

Dr David Hall

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 so on; they cannot invoke a right to do so, and no one thinks that things would go better in the direction of truth if they could."

On the contrary, 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", then 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 that she may fail your essay. If she's your peer reviewer, she's warning you that she may reject your manuscript. Unless you've got a paradigm-shifting argument up your sleeve, then 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 – then human knowledge couldn't make the progress that it does. It would have no way to sort true from false, relevant from irrelevant, sound from unsound, ethical from unethical. It would just 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 that freedom of expression entails freedom from consequences. At other times, they seem to believe that speech can, and should be, free from a wider context of rules, responsibilities and institutions.

Consider a recent argument by Professor Paul Moon, a member of the Free Speech Coalition (NZ Herald, June 26). He 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 immediately 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 and open encounter" 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: that civil society, in order to flourish, must have the means 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, argued that: "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 merely something to balance against free expression, but the foundations for a safe, inclusive and equitable society which makes expression possible for all.

Words and deeds that degrade people, that diminish their equal standing in a community, or that recruit others to illiberal causes like white supremacy, are not intended as contributions to truthful inquiry. And even if they were, a university has no obligation – in the name of free speech – to accommodate them, no more than it is obliged to accommodate flat earth theory.

People who argue the contrary – that cruel and faulty ideas should be indulged rather than refuted – are simply interfering, simply trying to prevent what Mill called "the natural… spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves".

It is no coincidence that free speech is metastasising into a dogma at the same time that liberal institutions are under siege around the world. Liberals will only have themselves to blame if they allow this dogma to drain support because it welcomed liberalism's enemies with open arms.

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First appearance

This opinion piece was first published by the NZ Herald.