With the rise of extremism on both sides, campuses are presented with a unique challenge: How free should freedom of speech be?
Freedom of speech is an enshrined liberty (at least in the US), for the simple reason that words are powerful. Freedom of speech protects the liberal values of societies from potentially oppressive leaders, because the words of a few can have a significant impact on the lives of the many. However, precisely because words are powerful, the debate again has arisen as to whether it is acceptable to limit free speech, and if so, where? As has been much commented on, universities have in many cases become battlegrounds for these conversations, and in some cases be less inclined to extend their generally liberal attitudes to absolute freedom of speech, which has been seen recently with controversial speakers from the alt-right in particular. While universities have often been thought of, rightfully, as places centred around openness, where conventions can be challenged and new schools of thought developed, they also have a history of being hotbeds for progressivism and activism. If you envisage universities’ roles as centred around liberal ideals, opposition to free speech may raise red flags. If you see universities as the homes to progressive activism, it is less surprising that student bodies in particular raise issue with speakers who oppose immigration, LGBTIQ rights, feminism and the like. Of course, such activism is itself an exhibition of free speech, but whether advocacy for shutting down some conversations is valid or helpful for progressive causes is being hotly debated.
On the one hand, some argue that refusing to allow controversial figures to speak at universities gives them greater publicity, and legitimates claims of silencing. On the other hand, the acceptance of absolute free speech can damage inter-group relations, advocate for bigotry and even violence, and legitimate radical worldviews and ideologies which are dangerous for the community. Of course, the Internet has greatly expanded the ability for radical messages to reach sympathetic audiences, providing a space where an individual can find support, endorsement and approval from a community, one that perhaps would be difficult to establish without the obscurity and the anonymity of the Internet, and has resulted in real violence. One such example is the “incel” chat rooms hosted by 4chan, which encouraged anger and retribution toward women, and in April of this year resulted in the killing of 10 people in Toronto. Alt-right speakers often rise to notoriety through the Internet, particularly YouTube channels and alternative news sites or blogs. Milo Yiannopoulos and Lauren Southern, both of whom’s speaking tours in Australia have recently resulted in protests and activism, both utilise YouTube to deliver their messages. New media allows extreme messages to be distributed without the mediating role traditional media has played in the past, normalising radical and hateful discourses.
It has been widely noted that the upsurge in support and legitimation of, in particular, neo-Nazis and white supremacists has resulted from President Trump’s links with them. The increasing attention paid to such speakers in the mainstream media because of the spectacle that encircles them both serves the agenda of these speakers, and normalises extreme and hate-filled discourse. For example, after Trump’s inauguration, there was an upsurge of racially triggered violence, as well as neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville and more recently in Georgia. Words of support and legitimation have real impacts on the lives and safety of others. With this in mind, free speech needs to be framed as a trade-off between the rights of those who wish to express themselves, and the rights of those their words effect. What doesn’t seem to be widely discussed in the conversation around freedom of speech, is how affording that freedom to some has a real relationship with impeding on the liberties and physical safety of others.
Some limit to what is acceptable public discourse needs to be established, within the context of maximising public freedoms more broadly.
To give the debate context, it’s important to think about examples outside of the US, where much of this debate has been centred. In Germany for example, hate speech is taken far more seriously, at least in part because of the intrinsic role propaganda played in the atrocities of the Second World War, by dehumanising and ostracising elements of the population. Germany have been diligent in stopping the spread of materials that attack groups based on their identity or attributes, and as a result have been at the forefront of developing responses to the issues social media present. They have developed a large and growing Facebook deletion centre, which overlooks the material distributed on the site for hate speech and quickly removes it. Where it is not clear whether the material equates to hate speech, it is passed on to a higher level for consideration, and Europe is considering adopting elements of the scheme.
The question regarding free speech is not, however, a zero-sum equation. Limits placed on free speech ought to be in place to increase broader freedom, not to suppress the public. What needs to be taken seriously is that words are powerful, and allowing anything to be said and distributed amounts to the curtailing of others’ rights to express their religion, to move freely, or to physical safety. The reality of all conversations around rights is that they must be curtailed in so far as they impinge on the rights of others. Once the power of words to create violence, hostility and segregation is acknowledged, some limit to what is acceptable public discourse needs to be established, within the context of maximising public freedoms more broadly. There is always a risk that censoring could go too far, particularly within communities that have lost trust in their governments to protect their interests and welfare, however there is a serious risk in being afraid to discuss how, rather than whether, words are acknowledged as dangerous, and potentially more so than an individual’s actions, because of their ability to incite and coordinate groups.
Already, there are various limits on what can be published, such as profanities or nudity, and the conversation around what else is not appropriate for public discourse ought to centre around the same principles.