Watch your tongue
|Illustration : Josée Bisaillon
The university, perhaps more than any other institution, is a place where people should be ready, willing and able to express a multiplicity of viewpoints. Both the search for truth and the principle of academic freedom that facilitates that search require that the free speech of members of the university not be limited unnecessarily.
Indeed, the burden of proof lies on those who would restrict the expression of opinion, not on those who are against such restrictions. Thus, for example, attempts by university administrations to constrain the discussion of unionization by their employees are prima facie inappropriate; the onus is on the administration to show that free speech in such a case is not justified – not on the staff to show that it is.
Nonetheless, this principle does not mean that anything goes or that there are no moral limits on academic free speech.
As an undergraduate many years ago, I enrolled in a senior seminar course called “Thinking and Reasoning.” One day during class the professor – who, like almost all my profs, was male – remarked, “We all know that women are less rational than men.”
In making this comment, some might say, the professor was simply exercising his rightful academic freedom. But the legitimacy of expressions of opinion depends on several factors.
First, and obviously, it makes a difference what is said. If, instead of his actual remark, my professor had said, “Studies of the reasoning abilities of women and men show some interesting results,” he would have avoided being sexist, he would have introduced empirical evidence, and he would not have insulted and intimidated the women in the class.
Second, it makes a difference who is speaking. As the instructor of the class, with three degrees and many publications, the professor possessed considerable authority. He should not have made a negative generalization about all women. Persons with power – teachers, political leaders, police officers, religious leaders, media figures – all have a special responsibility to take care in what they say.
Third, it makes a difference how the comment is expressed. My professor made a categorical statement about the alleged irrationality of women. How different things might have been if he had said, “Some people believe all women are irrational.” Or suppose he had posed a question: “Do you think all women are irrational?” Then his comment would have been much less harmful.
Now some champions of free speech argue that problematic comments like my professor’s should be expressed, so that sexist ideas like his are put into the so-called marketplace of ideas for debate and discussion, where, presumably, they can be refuted. In many cases they are right.
But some types of so-called free speech actually function to undermine the conditions of equal debate. By claiming that all women are irrational, my professor called into question the fundamental ability of women, including the women in the class, to engage in a discussion of the truth of what he said. His comment not only undermined our confidence; it also assigned to the men in the course a form of rhetorical superiority that conferred on their statements a greater authority than the women’s. He thereby made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the women students both to engage in discussion and to be heard by the rest of the class.
A genuinely fair discussion requires conditions of equality in which every speaker is, and is regarded as, a capable and equal participant. It’s inappropriate to expect the members of a specific group to debate their own alleged inferiority.
But, although my professor’s comment was unjustified, it does not follow that I think there should have been rules preventing him from speaking or punishing him for doing so. This is not an argument for academic speech police. One can criticize a particular utterance on moral grounds without believing it must necessarily be banned. Instead I’m arguing that all members of the academic community must assume personal responsibility not to indulge in statements that undermine others’ ability to speak freely.
On the other hand, just because speech such as this is not banned, it does not follow that people like my professor are automatically entitled to a public podium to make their comments. If a university declines to invite a known sexist, racist or homophobe to speak, that individual’s free speech is not being violated. Academia doesn’t owe bigots a platform. Nor are such persons inevitably entitled to have their views published in the campus newspaper or an academic journal.
There are, then, at least two ways in which academic free speech may be unjustly compromised. One is through outright prohibition. The other is by using free speech to undermine the capacity of others to speak. Paradoxically, sometimes academics should curb their speech, in order to permit free speech on campus to flourish.
Christine Overall teaches in the department of philosophy at
and is our regular columnist on philosophical issues in the academy.