Against The Grain: Free speech does not mean the freedom to abuse

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Dr Alan Haworth teaches history of ideas, ethics and political philosophy at London Metropolitan University. He argues that academic freedom should be more than just a slogan.

In academia free enquiry is a given. The question at issue relates to freedom of expression in the academic context; and we're talking about public institutions here, not private debating clubs. Universities are important public institutions, so what goes into the curriculum does matter.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill connects free speech and the pursuit of truth. I agree with that, and I also agree with him that the freedom to advance and discuss genuinely intellectually contestable theses in the pursuit of truth rules out incitement. This means – clearly – that it must also rule out the freedom to express racism, and "hate speech". Holocaust denial and creationist "science" are two good test cases here. I doubt that either can make a credible claim to be treated as serious history or serious science. So, in my view, neither should appear on, respectively, the history or the science syllabus.

Of course, the right to engage in certain forms of rhetoric or invective might well be defensible as the exercise of a liberty which is essential to the democratic process, but we should recall that we are not talking about free speech in general here, but about something quite specific: namely, "academic freedom". Bear in mind also that the question is whether the right of academics to advance whatever theses they like should be elevated to the level of a principle.

Actually, I do agree that, where academics are left free to advance and discuss controversial, offensive, and patently crazy ideas, this can have beneficial results. However, that is beside the point, for if something is to be treated as a principle, then it has to be applied even in worst case situations, where there is no such beneficial outcome.

Don't forget that, where a claim is made by someone entitled "professor" it can gain public respectability. That presumably explains why Holocaust deniers and creationists try so hard to be taken seriously as historians and scientists. But I think it's obvious that Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism, and that creationism is a mask for religious fundamentalism. Neither is "the other side of the argument"; neither should receive a licence stamped "academic freedom".

In conclusion, I agree with Deborah Lipstadt, who says that denying the Holocaust is about as serious as arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in Moscow. It is false that all propositions are equal and worth discussing.