If you believe the newspapers and broadcast media, freedom of speech is under threat on our university campuses as never before. On the right, this has taken the form of questioning the so-called “anti-Brexit bias” of university lecturers, and, on the left, free speech has been challenged by students advocating trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect people from harmful speech and from the ‘microaggressions’ of fellow students.
During my time at university, just over a decade ago, this was all very new. The NUS and many university students’ unions had put in place ‘no platform’ policies designed to ensure that he far-right didn’t have a voice on campus, justified because of the violence directed against minorities when the far-right are given the opportunity to air their views. At the time, this was something I fought against, believing it to be a policy designed to prevent the far-right from being openly challenged in a robust debate in a public forum, where they would be unquestionably exposed as the racist demagogues that they are.
My view then was informed by my reading of John Stuart Mill’s classic defence of freedom of speech in On Liberty, where he defends free speech as being essential to our search for truth. His argument is that we can only make progress as a society if there is an opportunity for truth to come into collision with error. If we prevent speech – even in cases where we believe ourselves to be entirely in the right – our own convictions are rendered less secure, because we can only know the basis of our beliefs when they are challenged in debate. Furthermore, to silence the views of others is to assume our own infallibility. Even in cases where we think ourselves entirely right, there might be a grain of truth in what our opponent has to say. Mill therefore concludes by putting his case very boldly:
If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
Mill argues that speech is a particularly important freedom that deserves special protection when speech is being used to argue and debate. This implies that some forms of speech are more important, and therefore deserve more protection, than others. For example, my right to debate a proposition in a university seminar room clearly deserves more protection than my right to shout on the street corner. By contrast, if I were to use my speech to incite an angry mob to commit violence or if I were to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, my speech is at best a nuisance, and, at worst, a cause of direct physical harm to someone else. In cases like this, it seems clear that my right to speak should be restricted.
This helps to explain why the current debate around freedom of speech centres around the university campus, because it is at a university that we might think that speech is most deserving of special protection.
In a recent high-profile case there were calls to ban Germaine Greer from delivering a lecture at Cardiff University. Eventually, the talk did go ahead and – as expected – she defended her view that transsexual women are not women in the bluntest possible terms:
I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock […] You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won’t make me change my mind […] Being a woman is a bit tricky. If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were 13 there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know. It’s not all cake and jam.
The above statement is clearly offensive to a large number of people; not just to transsexual women, but also to many who don’t share Greer’s view. But it also seems clear that Greer is defending a fairly mainstream view within second-wave feminism that there is something essential about gender that can’t be transformed via an operation. In short, that “biology is destiny,” to quote Freud.
It seems clear to me that offence can be a reason to restrict speech or action. For example, I would not have allowed Nazi sympathisers to march through a predominantly Jewish area of Stokie, Illinois wearing stormtrooper uniforms in 1977. I would also have banned the Westborough Baptist Church from protesting outside the funerals of dead soldiers holding up signs saying “GOD HATES FAGS”.
In the case of Greer, I would take a different view. Whilst her speech was offensive to a large number of people, it was offensive in the same way that the contents of a book or a television programme can be offensive. If I don’t want to be offended, I can simply put down the book or switch off the television. Equally, if I don’t want to hear Greer’s offensive words I can simply go somewhere else. This was not the case in the other two examples above, where the offense was egregious and almost impossible to avoid.
A further case could be made for restricting Greer’s speech on the basis that speech such as Greer’s undermines the basic dignity of transgender women that is essential to their equal status in a liberal democratic society. I’m much more open to this argument, because I do think that the wide preponderance of views that are transphobic could undermine equal status, which is essential for us to engage each other in debate and conversation as moral equals. Having said this, I think that speech like Greer’s is already sufficiently policed by social stigma, and general disapprobation without requiring the university or the state to further constrain her freedom of action.
Freedom of speech is a tricky area of debate precisely because nobody believes that freedom of speech should be absolute or that it is equally deserving of protection in all circumstances. However, the reason why the current debate is so pressing is that most people think that speech that is trying to further knowledge or speech that questions the actions of the government is in need of special protection.
This does not mean that all speech in these categories should always be protected, but it does mean that, in cases such as these, our presumption should be that freedom of speech should be protected unless as very compelling reason can be given for the opposite conclusion. This means that people like Greer should be afforded the opportunity to speak and if we don’t like it, we should go somewhere else.