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Is Free Speech in Academia Under Attack?

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

I remember in elementary school, I was one of only two children in my class supporting Michael Dukakis for President of the United States. We held a “political rally” one day and the two of us young liberals meekly chanted “Duke, Duke, Duke” as about 20 of our classmates drowned us out with their more robust chants of “Bush, Bush, Bush!” Of course, none of us really knew what we were doing at that age; we were just walking reflections of our parents’ political persuasions. But one thing I did understand at the time was that the left generally supported freedom of speech, whilst the right wanted to stifle it in favor of conservative values and patriotism, exemplified at the time by the hot debate over flag burning.


From these early days, I grew up guided by what used to be a quintessentially progressive saying:


I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”


I still live (and will die) by this saying, although these days few on the left (and therefore few in academia, since they are largely one in the same) share this view. Ironically, I now find my views, at least on this matter, aligned with scholars like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Gad Saad. They may not agree with everything I say, and I may not agree with everything they say, but we share in common a commitment to the free expression of ideas.


There has been, in my view, a general erosion of free speech in universities over the last few decades. This is especially true in Europe, Canada, and Australia, but perhaps only slightly less so in the United States, where freedom of speech is, thankfully, enshrined into the constitution. The Hon. Robert French AC, Chancellor of my own university, recently published a Review into University Freedom of Speech, firmly upholding the principle of free speech on campus as paramount, and concluding that we, as academics, have no particular duty to “protect any person from feeling offended or shocked or insulted” as long as our speech is lawful. To be clear, it’s not that I want anyone to be offended, shocked, or insulted, but rather that I believe these outcomes are a price worth paying for freedom. At the same time, we need to be mindful that our expressions (both verbal and written) do not cross the line into bullying and harassment, which are (at least in Australia) both unlawful. But precisely where we draw that line is the real bone of contention. Who among us has the power to define its boundaries? Do you?


My own view as a social scientist is that no topic of research should be prohibited as long as the scientific method is used to evaluate it objectively. I’m not sure where that leaves my friends in the arts and humanities who do not consider themselves scientists, but at least in the social and natural sciences, there should be no constraints over what we research, even if some people or groups find the results unpalatable. The reason I take this position is that life itself is unpalatable. It is. We shouldn’t be protecting students from this inescapable fact, but rather we should be exposing them to it so they can cope when they enter the real world. Any cognitive behavioral therapist will tell you that avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations perpetuates anxiety; the real solution is what they call exposure and response prevention.


For this reason, campuses should welcome speakers from all across the political spectrum and even allocate a budget to ensure everyone's health and safety at such events. As a centrist, I personally often disagree with those on the right and the left, but who am I to say that no one has a right to hear ideas with which I disagree? Equally, who are you to say that I don’t have a right to hear ideas with which you disagree? In a free marketplace of ideas, the best ones rise to the top and the worst are relegated organically to the dustbins of history.


Freedom of speech is a precious gift. Just ask people from parts of the world where it does not exist. Let’s not squander it. You don’t have to agree with me on this point, but you should defend to the death my right to say this.

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Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

© 2020 by Andrew R. Timming.

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