Free Speech On Campus

In his regular Friday slot Christopher Owens reviews a book on the free speech controversy that has moved to the centre of university discourse.

It's a recurring theme on TPQ: the right to express opinions. And it's why we keep returning to the site, regardless of whether we agree with the poster or not.

But there are those who wish to silence such views. Some are on our very doorstep. Some are in power. Some are in government.

So it's important to keep such a right.

First published in 2017, this book manages to examine the long history of free speech in America, before looking at how it has been fought for on campuses and the wider world. Both authors are high profile academics in the University of California, Irvine who have seen high profile events like Dennis Prager and Milo Yiannopoulos been targeted with death threats and disruptions.

Admirably (if frustratingly), both authors maintain a neutral stance throughout, emphasising that it is important to recognise and understand that the demands for campuses to take action against (what is perceived to be) hate speech come from students who have a desire to fight the ills of the world. While this is certainly true (and is a visible contrast from Claire Fox's hectoring), the further revelation that a lot of them had no knowledge of the history of free speech, and how it empowered minorities undoes a lot of my sympathy for these students.

Very much focused on the American debates and battles (owing to the fabled First Amendment), it's a short and fascinating glimpse at how these battles have been raging since the foundation of America, taking in criticism of individuals, government policy, anti war stances, pro-Marxist/Communist witch hunts, civil rights for African Americans and the Berkley Free Speech Movement, which even involved Ronald Reagan. We should be grateful to such people.

They then look at recent cases on campuses where the universities have attempted to deal with "hate speech" (or "fighting words") have led to court decisions going against them, discussing how even "hate speech" can often be protected under the First Amendment. This willingness to show a tricky, negative side to this debate put paid the notion promoted by certain people that free speech means no consequences.

In the final segment, they discuss the responsibilities that universities have towards their students, their staff and the contradictions that can unfold because of this. By stressing that universities must create safe spaces for open, free and professional discussion in the classroom, but not "safe spaces" from ideas that some would find repugnant, the two authors are able to show how these ideas can be misinterpreted and abused (such as heckling invited speakers) and it allows for a greater insight into these battles than the click baiting headlines we're used to seeing on Spiked or The Daily Wire.

Where I will disagree with them is their rejection of the belief that "trigger warnings" are a form of overindulging pampered students. They do concede that university imposed "trigger warnings" are a bad idea, but their argument that it's up to the lecturer/tutor to warn people of potentially offensive material (to me) smacks of condescension. Art, music and literature should shock and challenge and it's important to gage people's perspectives on such matters, as it should then lead into full and frank discussions about the odious topics.

Nonetheless, as a primer for someone looking to explore the history and motivations behind this recent strand of the ongoing culture war, you won't go wrong with this.

Erwin Chemerinsky, Howard Gillman, 2017, Free Speech on Campus. Yale University Press ISBN-13: 978-0300226560

⏩  Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

7 comments to ''Free Speech On Campus "

  1. Christopher - a very important subject in light of today's attempts by the PC mob to silence dissent and smother thought.

  2. And me getting called a "neckbeard right wing incel misogynist" who doesn't deserve a platform!

  3. And who was the author of that poisonous pearl Christopher?

    1. Some Facebook accounts who might very well be troll accounts.


  4. Christopher - not much to worry about there then!

  5. Not at all, but it is incredibly tiresome knowing fine rightly these people have simply seen the title of the book, assumed "free speech = right wing" without knowing a shread about my past reviews, your history with the Provos and Boston College or even how the concept of free speech empowered minorities, and branded me right wing.

  6. Christopher - being a member of the No Nothing Society is the real joy for them. Knowing something ruins the PC pity party.


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