The right to be objectionable

I’ve had a protracted debate in the course of the last week with some of the new Puritans, who hold that people who don’t agree with them should be isolated, ostracised and silenced.   This approach is both illiberal and anti-academic.  I was interested, then, to see some ratings of UK universities by Spiked, who have constructed an index of Free Speech.  Of 115 universities surveyed, only 12 have substantially avoided censorship of objectionable opinions.

I don’t agree fully with Spiked’s position.  Their manifesto argues for the removal of all limits on speech, including hate-speech and libel, and that’s why I couldn’t sign it.  We should not underestimate the power that speech has to deny a voice to other people, and free speech should not extend to statements like “kill these people before they kill you”.  There’s also an implicit contradiction in advocating the freedom to shout down other people.

There’s a persuasive academic argument from Scanlon that free speech is a misrepresentation of the true right, which is not so much the right of speakers to express themselves as the right of the audience to hear and decide for themselves.  If the audience would be wrong to decide  – “let’s lynch this murderer” – it may well follow, depending on the context, that the person saying it does not have the right to express it.   The context does matter, however.  In the course of teaching theory and ethics in academic institutions, I’ve reviewed arguments for lots of unpalatable positions, including eating babies, corruption, letting poor people starve and torturing people. The academic world depends on dialogue and developing the skills to deal with contrary views; suppressing those arguments is anathema to learning.

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