All along the incredibly compressed political/ideological spectrum in the U.S., hand wringing has begun about free speech—mostly because right-wing racist academics and hate-mongering pundits-for-hire have been blocked from speaking or challenged on college campuses.
It seems to me we should pause the melodrama, then, and consider what I believe is the most important koan-type question to ponder concerning free speech: Is it OK to shout “theater” in a crowded firehouse?
Now let’s unpack this as important.
Key here is the question is a satire of the Urban-Legend reduction of free speech couched as “Is it OK to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater?”
The satire adds nuance and complexity to considering and understanding free speech since, as the current pontificating shows once again, the public debate about free speech is typically awful in its laziness and lack of context .
Ulrich Baer’s response is a rare recognition of that lack of context and laziness:
The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.
So here are a few problems with the All Voices Matter approach to demanding that colleges must protect even the most horrible speech on their campuses.
“Free speech” is a constitutional term about the role of government to protect and not impede any citizen’s right to expression. As noted above, “free speech” is not any damn body gets to say any damn thing any damn time.
If we persist in this debate without including the context of the government’s role, then we are being terribly lazy and ultimately dishonest.
Now, yes, tax-supported public universities and colleges certainly create a complicated context for the role of government in protected or limited speech—if we consider administration and faculty as agents of the government in these institutions.
What we are then arguing, I believe, is academic freedom, a much different concept.
Academics and scholars rightly call for and defend academic freedom, but it too is not license for anyone to say anything any time.
As a professor of history, one may acknowledge to students that Holocaust deniers exist, but that would come with a clear denouncing of that position. As important here is that academics and scholars take great care to represent the weight of voices along with the credibility of voices.
Holocaust deniers, academics would stress, are in a significant minority, and their scholarship is deeply flawed, therefore invalid.
For comparison, let’s return to satire and look at the media in the U.S.
Like the imbalance of Holocaust deniers to Holocaust scholars, the climate change debate is greatly skewed—the vast majority of environmental scientists verify climate change is a fact while a few (usually without credentials in the field) deny climate change, also without valid science behind their claims.
Yet, as John Oliver has shown through the power of satire to render the oversimplified complex, the mainstream media, in its ham-fisted effort at being fair and balanced, routinely have two people present “both sides” on issues such as climate change.
This standard of journalism completely misrepresents the weight of informed opinion and the significance of expertise—whose voice matters and how much that voice is amplified.
All of the current lazy bluster, then, is failing the importance of free speech and academic freedom by oversimplifying the principles, blurring the concepts, and, worst of all, completely ignoring the real threats to free speech—capitalist-consumerism.
There is no free speech in the U.S., and what academic freedom exists is small and cloistered in select classrooms, often hidden and thinly shielded from the Institutions themselves—as public and private education remains prisoner to consumerism and the all-mighty dollar.
Whose voice matters in the U.S. is determined by wealth and still governed by, mostly, white men.
Free speech ultimately is not just about who gets to speak and if, but about the platform as well as the weight behind the who and the what—and mostly that is determined by the weight of money, gender, and race.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Mark Zuckerberg.
O, wait, that’s already happened.