Free Speech vs. Academic Freedom

Candice eetimesHow do you define “free speech”?

We need to ask because lately, people have been arguing that our college campuses have abandoned free speech.  However, it would appear that they are confusing “freedom of speech” with “academic freedom”, a much different concept.  Further, many outsiders, visitors and speakers not part of the official university community, have claimed that their “free speech rights” are being denied on campuses.

Lets clear a few things up.  First, “free speech” rights are part of the American value system both culturally and legally, codified right in our Constitution in the Bill of Rights.  However, that right is NOT the right to be heard.  It is the right to NOT be arrested when speaking out.  That is to say, if you say something critical of policy or politician, you may NOT be arrested and prosecuted.  It does not give a person the right to demand that an institution provide a platform to disseminate that position.  A university is well within its rights to turn away a would-be speaker.

What people are really asking for is a form of “academic freedom”… another value occasionally professed by centers for higher learning.  But once again, not a right guaranteed by any law.  This freedom is usually granted to instructors or researchers who have gained a contractual protection called ‘tenure’.  But even tenure may not protect an individual who steps outside of other norms and values held collectively by the university community.

No university or college is under any legal or moral obligation to provide a platform for an outsider, either under the rubric of “free speech” nor of “academic freedom”.  An invited speaker does so purely as a courtesy on both sides.  No one’s rights have been abrogated if a would be speaker is disinvited for any reason.

Having dispensed with the notion of rights, we may turn to the question of wisdom of turning away such speakers.  There is something to be said for providing a wider range of ideas and opinions to be heard on campus to provide a better education, or perhaps to bolster deeper cultural understanding.  However, when a would-be speaker’s primary reason for speaking is to gain the imprimatur of respectability and even of implied correctness for their ideas from having spoken at an institution… and that institution’s values would oppose those ideas and would seek to deny attaching its reputation to those ideas, the institution would be better served by denying that platform.

Let’s be specific, speakers calling for discrimination or other illtreatment of others do NOT have a right to expect university support for their ideas nor to provide a platform from which to call for these injustices.

On the other hand… when an institution has invited a speaker, that speaker has the moral expectation that they will not be subject to undue harassment and physical danger.  Members of the university community have the right to speak against the ideas of the speaker, but not the right to shout them down, as that interferes with right of other members of the community to hear out the speaker, which was after all, the reason for inviting the speaker.  One does not have to be respectful of the ideas or opinions of the speaker; but one must be respectful of the rights of others to civil conduct during a presentation.

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