Barry Gilheany ➤ Many commentators, not just from the Right, have expressed concern that what has traditionally been a fundamental marker of a free society and the Enlightenment project -  freedom of speech and/or expression, is under sustained attack from the Lord Chamberlains of the 21st century. 

The high priests of the wokerati who in pursuit of what are noble objectives, societal equality and the opening up of literary canons to previously silent voices, have assumed the power of arbitration of who should or not speak on university campuses and what can or cannot be said in wider society.

It is held by some that freedom of speech is under existential threat from the enforcers of political correctness and the “anti-offence” culture. In the world of higher education, some academics worry that university administrators are facilitating the growth of “snowflake” generations of young people by shielding them from the necessary intellectual challenges of exposure to and dealing with diversity in arguments and scholarship through the “protective” mechanisms of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”. They also worry that the “no-platforming” of controversial speakers by strident pressure groups on campus further weaken the intellectual and personal resilience of higher education attendees.

In this article, I seek to unpick the definitions of freedom of speech and political correctness and to determine whether there is a genuine free speech threat from the denizens of woke culture or whether this is a confected crisis; a smokescreen behind which the differentials of power persist.

Freedom of Speech: Legal Status

Freedom of Speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or of a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. The term freedom of speech is sometimes used as a synonym but includes any act of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used (Wikipedia: Freedom of Speech).

Freedom of expression is recognised as a human right under Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the UDHR states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and:

everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; and this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. 

The version of Article 19 in the ICCPR later amends this by stating that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect or reputation of others” or [f]or the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals. (Wikipedia: p.1).

Freedom of speech or expression, is also recognised in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Wikipedia: p.2).

The right to freedom of speech and expression is closely related to other rights, and may be limited when conflicting with other rights. The right to freedom of expression is also related to a fair trial and court proceedings which may limit access to the search for information, or determine the opportunity and means in which freedom of expression is manifested within court proceedings. As a general principle freedom of expression may not limit the right to privacy, as well as the honour and reputation of others. However greater latitude is given when criticism of public figures in involved. (Wikipedia: p.3)

To summarise then, based on the arguments of John Milton, freedom of speech is to be understood as a multi-dimensional right that incorporates not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but three additional distinct elements:

1. the right to seek information and ideas;

2. the right to receive information and ideas;

3. the right to impart information and ideas. (Wikipedia: p.3).

Restrictions on Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech in most jurisdictions is hedged in by variety of limitations often relating to other competing right and liberties, as in the case of libel, slander, pornography, obscenity, fighting words, and intellectual property. Some European countries controversially retain blasphemy laws. Others abound.[1]

Justifications for restriction on freedom of speech usually fall into two categories: the prevention of harm and the avoidance of offence. The harm principle is articulated most forcefully by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, in which he asserts that: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. (Note the absence of a reference to prevention of self-harm). Otherwise, he argues that “… there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”

In 1985, Joel Feinberg introduced the “offence principle”. He wrote “It is always a good reason in support of a proposed criminal publication that it would probably be an effective way of preventing serious offence (as opposed to injury or harm) to persons other than the actor and that some forms of harm expression can be legitimately prohibited by law because they are very offensive. But, as offending someone, the penalties imposed should be higher for causing harm. Because of the extent to which people may take offence varies, Feinberg lists a number of factors to be taken into account when adjudging when offence has been caused, including: the extent, duration and social value of the speech, the ease with which it (offence) can be avoided, the motives of the speaker, the number of people offended, the intensity of the offence, and the general interest of the community at large (Wikipedia: pp.4-5).

Interpretations of the harm and offense principles can be very wide. Many European democracies who proudly proclaim their commitment to free speech nevertheless have laws criminalising Holocaust denial on their statute book.[2] Other countries make Armenian Genocide denial illegal. Harm and offence criteria are used to justify Russia’s LGBT propaganda law restricting speech (and action) in relation to LGTB issues and very likely lay behind the reluctance of some progressive public intellectuals and political figures to spring to the defence of artists and writers subjected to Islamist fatwas and terrorism such as Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Danish cartoonist portrayer of the Prophet Mohammed. It certainly lies behind the extant blasphemy laws on the statute books of European nations.

The clearest defence of freedom of speech against the demands of “offended” religious authorities and faith communities is made by the late lamented contrarian Christopher Hitchens. The following quotations from The Hitch’s prolific literary output lays down succinctly the defining lines of free speech debates:

“… Civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient.”[3] (Mann, Ed.: 2011)

“All major confrontations over the right to free thought, free speech, and free inquiry have taken the same form – of a religious attempt to assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and inquiring one[4] (Mann, Ed p.241).

“In the responses of a liberal society to this direct affront [the Rushdie fatwa), there has been altogether too much about the offended susceptibilities of the religious and altogether too little about the absolute right of free expression and free inquiry. One can and must be ‘absolute’ about these. Unlike other absolutisms, they guarantee rather than abridge the rights of all – Khomeini included – to be heard and debated.[5].(Mann, Ed. p.251)

“So, who will now say that a lone novelist ‘brought it all on himself’ by ‘insulting Islam’.? The insult to Islam, as Rushdie and his supporters argued all along, was the assumption that the Muslim culture itself demanded blood sacrifice.”[6] (Mann, Ed, p.252)

As definitive as Hitchens’ quotes above, is the landmark opinion given by the US Supreme Court in Brandenburg v Ohio (1969) which in overruling Whitney v. California referred to the right even to speak openly of violent action and revolution in broad terms:

[Our][ decisions have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech do not allow a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or cause such action. (Wikipedia: p.5).

The opinion in Brandenburg discarded the previous test of “clear and present danger” and made the right to freedom of (political) speech’s protections in the US almost absolute. Hate speech is also protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as decided in R.A.V. in City of St. Paul, (1992) in which the Supreme Court ruled that hate speech is permissible, except in the case of imminent violence (Wikipedia: p.5)

The Internet and Free Speech

International, national and regional standards recognise that freedom of speech, as one form of freedom of expression, applies to any medium, including the Internet. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 was the first major attempt by the US Congress to regulate pornographic material on the Internet. In 1997, in the landmark cyberlaw case of Reno v. ACLU, the US Supreme Court partially overturned the law. Judge Stewart R. Dalzell, who as one of the three federal judges had in June 1996 declared parts of the CDA unconstitutional, in his opinion stated the following:

The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green or the mails…. Speech on the Internet can be unfiltered, unpolished, and unconventional, even emotionally charged, sexually explicit, and vulgar – in a word, “indecent” in many communities. But we should expect such speech to occur in a medium in which citizens from all walks of life have a voice. …The Government can continue to protect children from pornography on the Internet through vigorous enforcement of existing laws criminalising obscenity and child pornography. In my view, our action today should only mean that Government’s permissible supervision of Internet contents stops at the traditional line of unprotected speech.

The penultimate sentence of Judge Dalzell’s opinion makes a brief statement that has alternatively enthused and bedevilled Internet users ever since and which poses the most fundamental dilemma for those excited by the emancipatory potential or those alarmed by its unregulated, Wild West possibilities – “The strength of the Internet is chaos.” (Wikipedia: p.6)

Free Speech on Campus

Since so much of heat generated in free speech controversies has originated within higher education institutions, it is worth looking at the evolution of law and practice in what is becoming an essentially contested arena.

Free speech at public universities and colleges at once raise the most obvious but equally the most paradoxical of constitutional principles in the US. Given the nature of scholastic inquiry, it is obvious that only an open, robust and critical environment will enable the quest for truth. But at the same time, universities are communities that need to balance the requirements of free speech with those of civility, respect and human dignity. They also belong to a larger social order with its own, often competing set of values (Hudson, 2018).

Historically a major driver of freedom of expression has been its relationship to academic freedom. This connection was fully validated in the landmark 1957 Supreme Court decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire. In this case the Attorney-General of New Hampshire, tasked by the State Legislature to determine if there were “subversive persons” working for the State, had asked Paul Sweezy, a visiting lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, questions as to whether he had delivered “leftist content” while lecturing and about his knowledge of the :Progressive Party in the state and its members. Sweezy refused to answer them on the grounds that the First Amendment protected his freedom to develop his academic pursuits. (Hudson: p.2).

The Supreme Court, in a plurality opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, held in Sweezy’s favour and in the process decisively vindicated the notion of academic freedom.

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident … Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding, otherwise our civilisation will stagnate and die. (Hudson: p.2).

However, while subscribing to the First Amendment’s view of truth as a concept discovered in the marketplace of ideas and distilled from a cacophony of diverse opinions, the US Courts have failed to define and delineate the precise extent and nature of academic freedom or to develop a real and robust constitutional doctrine to support it.

Speech Codes: Legal History

This lacuna is glaringly obvious in the specific area that has devilled academic freedom and freedom of speech on US campuses: speech codes. According to case law, speech on matters of public interest is constitutionally protected, while speech on internal institutional business is guaranteed appreciably less protection. The justices have accepted that a university has a legitimate need to maintain order on campus and must have the latitude to govern as it sees fit. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has explicitly pronounced that academic freedom does not protect acts of intimidation, actual threats or disruptive acts interfering with an educational programme. So, it was out of these constitutional settings that speech codes emerged as the mechanisms whereby universities sought to balance freedom of expression and internal order (Hudson: p.2).

Speech codes were introduced by universities to combat hate speech; that is utterances and actions aimed at groups and individuals identifiable by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation including the wearing by white students on several campuses of blackface or fraternity or sorority parties. Supporters of such codes assumed that limiting hate speech and harassment on campuses would protect the emotional physical health of its intended victims and that it would enhance the learning process by enshrining the concept of rational discourse rather than hate-inspired invective and epithet (Hudson: p.3).

In constructing these codes, university administrators relied on the famous “fighting words” exception Supreme Court doctrine enunciated in the 1942 decision Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in which the conviction of the defendant Walter Chaplinsky under a New Hampshire law against offensive and derisive speech and name calling in public was unanimously upheld. In writing this verdict, Justice Frank Murphy formulated a two-tier approach to the First Amendment in which certain “well-defined and narrowly limited” categories of speech, including “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libellous” and insulting or “fighting” words, did not merit constitutional protection as they did not contribute to the expression of ideas nor did they contain any “social value” in searching for truth. (Hudson: p.3).

Some universities actioned the “fighting words” doctrine in order to prevent the discriminatory behaviour that flows from speech deemed to be offensive. Thus in 1990 the University of Texas developed a speech code that placed emphasis on the intent of the speaker to engage in harassment and on evidence that the attempt to do this had led to real harm. In 1989 the University of California invoked the fighting-words doctrine specifically. (Hudson: p.3)

These codes soon began to attract ridicule because of their interpretation and implementation. Perhaps the most famous example was the policy of the University of Connecticut to make “inappropriately directed laughter” and “conspicuous exclusion from conversations and/or classroom discussions” violations of its speech policy; a directive which was to be in validated by a federal court (Hudson: p.3).

As concerns around “political correctness” began to get traction in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, so the issue of what universities could and should restrict became the epicentre of the “PC” debate. The promulgation of speech codes were a response to the oft-justified pressures to eliminate discrimination and harassment from campus from groups who had their own causes to press but in the words of the former university president Sheldon Hackney, in such zero-sum, “drive-by-debate” the “real casualties” were “real answers”. While such heat, rather than light, generating ring-side entertainment “… only reinforces lines of division and does not build toward agreement.” (Hudson: p.4). Furthermore, in trying to curtail the views and voices of some, liberals and leftists appeared to be engaging in a type of ‘reverse McCarthyism’ process; a very uncomfortable place for those for whom freedom of expression should, one would expect a sine qua non.

Many speech codes were struck down on constitutional grounds. In 1989, a federal judge in Doe v. The University of Michigan threw out the university’s code due to its overt vagueness when it forbade language “that stigmatises or victimises an individual” He found that in the guidebook accompanying the code the provision that restricted speech that might prompt laughter at a joke about a student who stuttered in class such speech was protected off campus and therefore could not be banned on it. In the case of the University of Wisconsin code, a federal judge in the case of UWM Post v. Board of Regents, held that the fighting-words doctrine had little value as a guide, since the code declared the utterance of certain kinds of speech unacceptable even if they were unlikely to lead to a breach of the peace. And a seemingly fatal blow was inflicted on speech codes by a unanimous ruling by the; Supreme Court in 1992 in the case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul which though it dealt with a St. Paul, Minnesota ordinance which made it a crime to place “on public or private property a … burning cross or Nazi swastika, which one knows or has reasonable grounds to know arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, colour, creed, religion or gender”, held the ordinance unconstitutional on the grounds that it sought to ban free speech on content (Hudson: pp.4-5).

Speech Codes: Free Speech Zones?

Despite the seemingly devastating body blow from the Supreme Court in R.A.V, v. City of St. Paul, speech codes did not die on US campuses. Some colleges and universities created free-speech zones for protestors and others wishing to exercise their free speech rights. However, despite these seemingly laudable attempts to protect free speech, some universities use the concept of zoning speech to relegating and dispersing speech that they wish to muffle; in other words, censor it. Related issues concern the shutting down or “no-platforming” of controversial speakers and the concepts of safe spaces, which can refer to university policies that shield students from uncomfortable or unwanted ideas, trigger warnings, which refer to professors telling students in class before discussing subjects that may be upsetting to individual students so “as to ensure an inclusive learning environment for students” and micro-aggressions , which refer to slights, petty insults, and comments that cause at least subtle harm to recipients. (Hudson: p.6).

This package is referred to as “New Censorship” by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gilman in their book Free Speech on Campus.[7] Paved with the best intentions of providing an inclusive learning environment and culture, there are plenty of examples of the dystopia of censorship and intolerance that this process has led to. In 2015, a student theatre group at Mount Holyoke, after seeking student feedback, cancelled their annual production of Eve Ensler’s pathbreaking play, The Vagina Monologues, because transgender women do not have vaginas, and the play therefore “offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.” In response, Ensler pointed out that “inclusion doesn’t come from refusing to acknowledge our distinctive experiences, and trying to erase them, in an attempt to pretend they do not exist. Inclusion comes from listening to our differences and honouring the right of everyone to talk about their reality, free from oppression and bigotry and silencing.”[8] She also added that she had previously made available an optional monologue based on interviews she’d conducted with transgender women (Lipstadt, 2019)

In 2017 the University of California at Berkeley was the scene of a riot by students with Antifa help from the outside due to invitations to speak on campus by the prominent Alt-Right spokespeople Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos which eventually led to the cancellation of the event ostensibly on safety grounds. As Berkeley professor Robert Reich observed, “How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?”[9] (Lipstadt: p.186)

As disturbing has been the response of some faculty members to free-speech controversies. In 2017, Wellesley faculty who are part of the college’s Commission on Race, Ethnicity and Race expressed concern in relation to the appearance by a professor with controversial views on sexual violence on campus, over “the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.[10] (Lipstadt: p.186).

In another incident, a biology professor objected to a change to the “Day of Absence” held by his college, Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington held every April, whereby students and faculty staff of colour did not come to campus in order to represent what an all-white society would look like, which invited white students, staff and faculty to leave campus for the day, on the grounds that “… On a college campus, one’s right to speak – or to be – must never be based on skin colour.”[11]. Weinstein was then surrounded and verbally assaulted by students outside his classroom in a subsequent student protest. He and his wife later resigned their faculty positions and left the area after being told by the university administration that the campus police could not guarantee his physical safety from threats of violence he later received (Lipstadt: p.187).

However, some university administrations have acted robustly to defend freedom of speech on campus. Pride of place goes to the University of Chicago whose president Robert J. Zimmer and provost Eric D. Isaacs in 2014 tasked a faculty committee on freedom of expression with drafting a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation.” The committee cited the observation of a past president of the university, Hanna Holborn Gray: 

Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom[12]

Addressing the omnipresence of “trigger warnings”, Jay Ellison, Dean of Students at the College at the University of Chicago, wrote in his welcoming letter to the class of 2020, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”[13].

A manifesto for proper freedom of expression; for proper academic freedom and for a properly inclusive learning environment and culture on campus.

Political Correctness and Speech Codes

Conflicts over curricula content and freedom of expression at higher education institutes have been a major terrain over disputes over political correctness. Political correctness (commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term used to describe language, policies, or measures designed to avoid offence or disadvantage to members of social groups regarded as marginalised, disadvantaged or otherwise stigmatised; particularly those defined by sex or race, (Wikipedia: Political Correctness). PC refers to things you cannot say in public without attracting fearsome moral opprobrium such as justification of the Holocaust and of the institution of slavery (Fukuyama: p.118).

The term PC was originally used to describe the strict adherence to ideological orthodoxies within politics. In debates between American Communists and Socialists in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the phrase was deployed by the latter against the dogmatic rigidity of the former; adherence to a party line regardless of moral and humanitarian substance.[14] According to the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, this original use of the term PC may have morphed into its modern usage by radical students on American campuses in their take-downs of the party line of every far-left sect from the BS (Before the Sixties) era with blatant examples of sexist or racist behaviour of their fellow students being called out in the satirical tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: “Not very ‘politically correct’. Comrade!”[15]

This previously obscure far-left term became a common epithet in conservative social and political challenges to progressive teaching methods and curriculum changes in US secondary schools and universities. Policies, behaviour and speech codes that the speaker or author saw as the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy, were excoriated as “politically correct”. In May 1991, at a commencement ceremony for a graduating class of the University of Michigan, then President George H.W. Bush in his speech opined that “The notion of political correctness … declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits”.[16]

Throughout the 1990s, the term PC became part of standard lexicon for US conservatives; a signifier for conservative anxieties about the left in political and cultural debates beyond academia. Two articles on the topic in late 1990 in Forbes and Newsweek both used the term “thought police” but it was Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex On Campus[17] which really acted as a lightning rod for conservative discontents. Similar hostile vocabulary was used by D’Souza for policies designed to promote inclusivity in academia around victimisation, supporting multiculturalism through affirmative action, sanctions against anti-minority hate speech, and revision of curricula. These trends were, of course, part of a response to the identity politics of feminism, gay rights, ethnic minority and other new social movements. That response received financial backing from conservative foundations and think tanks such as the John M. Olin Foundation, which funded several books such as D’Souza’s. (Wikipedia: p.3)

Liberal commentators argue that the use of the term PC by the Right is done to divert attention from the substantive issues of social inequality affecting the racial and gender groups that it does not consider part of mainstream society. The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee said in 2001[18] that the phrase is an empty, right-wing smear, designed only to elevate its user and, in 2010, “was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic, or queer[19]. Another British journalist, Will Hutton wrote in 2001 that the “sharpest”, most incisive “thinkers on the American Right” were quick to realise “that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by levelling the charge of “political correctness” against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.”[20] Paul Krugman writes that:

the big threat to our discourse is right-wing political correctness, which – unlike the liberal version – has lots of power and money behind it. And the goal is very much the kind of thing Orwell tried to convey with his notion of “Newspeak”: to make it impossible to talk, and; possibly even think, about ideas that challenge the established order.[21]

In relationship to higher education specifically, Glenn Loury wrote in 1994[22] that to raise the subject of “political correctness” when power and authority within the academic world is subjected to contestation by parties on either side of that issue is to attract examination of one’s arguments by would-be “friends” or “enemies”. Instead of more objective, dispassionate assessment of one’s scholastic writing and credentials, partisans of left and right will judge which “side” a writer is on.

Conclusion

In a speech given by Salman Rushdie, one of the most high-profile victims of clerically inspired no-platforming and silencing, in 2015 he, in talking about his personal experience, reflected that “these are not good days for liberty … Freedom seems everywhere in retreat.”[23]. But he was referring to the North American university campus, which he described as becoming an “insult-free zone”. He condemned the fact that threats to freedom of expression in America were coming from “within the walls of the academy” and that it was “young people” who were “most willing to sacrifice, or limit this fundamental right.” He laid down his credo for freedom of speech or expression thus:

To equate social good manners, the way we interact with each other, with the liberty to say what one thinks, even if people don’t like it, is to make a false comparison … Ideas are not people. Being rude about an idea is not the same thing as being rude about your aunt … What you don’t have is the right to use your alleged offended-ness as a reason to stop other people from speaking. (Lipstadt: pp.184-85)

These are statements on freedom of expression that I endorse and I share Deborah Lippstadt’s worry that certain students on certain American (and UK) campuses seem to have taken notions of political correctness, as well as ideas about “inclusivity”, “exclusivity”, and “safe space”, to the point where they trump freedom of speech.” (Lipstadt: p.185). What the real debates about political correctness and the related conflicts around identity politics are about are more likely about language and whether changing language actually solves political and social problems according to Geoffrey Hughes. Critics of what should be more accurately called “linguistic correctness “view it more as a means of flaunting the moral purity, the wokeness of those who practice it and of imposing censorship and moral shaming rather than solving problems. 

Political or linguistic correctness also tends to be pushed by a militant minority who then become de facto agenda setters in the eyes of their followers and opponents rather than representing an organic form of language change. There have undoubtedly been localised free speech crises particularly when identities lash such as those been between some transgender activists and feminists which has led to critics of trans ideology and practice such as Germaine Greer being no-platformed and the emergence of Black Lives Matter as a potentially transformative movement in the wake of the police homicide of George Floyd will bring new demands for the revision of academic and literary canons and cultural artefacts such as public statues of slave traders. But if political correctness can come to be seen as merely a means of ensuring courtesy and respect rather than a template for suppression of legitimate debate and inquiry then it need not conflict with freedom of expression.

Bibliography

Hudson, David L, 2018. Free Speech on Public College Campuses. Freedom Forum Institute.

Fukuyama, Francis (2019) Identity. Contemporary Identity: Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. London: Profile Books.

Hitchens, Christopher, 2011 She’s No Fundamentalist. Slate, 5th March 2007 in Hitchens, Christopher (2011) Arguably London: Atlantic Books

Lipstadt, Deborah (2019) Antisemitism. Here and Now. London: Scribe Publications

Mann, Windsor (2011, Ed.) The Quotable Hitchens. From Alcohol to Zionism. The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens. Cambridge MA: De Capo Press

Wikipedia Freedom of Speech pp.1-18.

Wikipedia Political Correctness pp. 1-145.

[1] Sedition, incitement, classified information, trade secrets, food labelling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, dignity, the right to be forgotten, public security and perjury amongst others.

[2] These include Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Romania.

[3] Christopher Hitchens “Cartoon Debate,” Slate, 2/04/06.

[4] Christopher Hitchens (2007) God Is Not Great. New York: Twelve, p.258.

[5] Christopher Hitchens, Siding with Rushdie. London Review of Books, 26 October 1989.

[6] Christopher Hitchens Monotheist Notes from All Over Nation, 19 October 1998.

[7] Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gilman (2017) Free Speech on Campus. Can free speech coexist with an inclusive campus environment. Yale University Press.

[8] Eve Ensler, “I Never Defined a Woman as a Person with a Vagina,” Time Magazine, 19th January 2015.

[9] Robert Reich “Coulter Should Be Allowed to Speak,” Newsweek, 25th April 2017.

[10] “Wellesley Statement from CERE Faculty Re: Laura Kipnis Freedom Project Visit and Aftermath,” FIRE -Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 20th March 2017.

[11] Bret Weinstein, “The Campus Mob Came for Me – and You, Professor Could Be Next.” Wall Street Journal, 30th May 2017.

[12] The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago, Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, University of Chicago, January 2015, https://freeexpression,uchicago.edu/page/report-committee-freedom-expression.

[13] Jay Ellison to Class of 2020, University of Chicago, n.d., www.intellectualtakeout.org/sites/ito/files/acceptance_letter.jpg; Bret Stephens, “America’s Best College President,” New York Times, 17th October 2017.

[14] Kohl. Herbert (1992) Uncommon Differences: On Political Correctness. Core Curriculum in Education the Lion and the Unicorn. 16(1) pp.1-16.

[15] Hall, Stuart (1994) Some Politically Incorrect Pathways Through Political Correctness in S. Dunant (ed.) The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate pp.164-84.

[16] U.S. President George H.W. Bush at the University of Michigan (4th May 1991). Remarks at the University of Michigan Commencement Ceremony in Ann Arbor 4th May 1991 George Bush Presidential Library.

[17] D’Souza, Dinesh (1991) Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus New York: Free Press.

[18] Polly Toynbee 'Religion Must Be Removed from All Functions of State'. Guardian 12 December 2001.

[19] Polly Toynbee, 'This Bold Equality Push is Just What We Needed.' Guardian 28th April 2009.

[20] Will Hutton, 'Words Really Are Important, Mr Blunkett.' Observer 16th December 2001.

[21] Paul Krugman The New Political Correctness New York Times 26th May 2012.

[22] Loury, G.C. (1st October 1994) 'Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of Political Correctness and Related Phenomena.' Rationality and Society. 6(4): pp,428-61.

[23] Kimber Williams, “Rushdie Urges Students to Defend Free Speech,” Emory News Agency, 16th February 2015, http: //news.emory.edu/stories/2015/02/er_salman_rushdie_lecture/campus.html.

Barry Gilheany is a freelance writer, qualified counsellor and aspirant artist resident in Colchester where he took his PhD at the University of Essex. He is also a lifelong Leeds United supporter seeking the Promised Land of the Premiership!

Freedom Of Speech And Political Correctness ➤ Liberal Incompatibilities?

Barry Gilheany ➤ Many commentators, not just from the Right, have expressed concern that what has traditionally been a fundamental marker of a free society and the Enlightenment project -  freedom of speech and/or expression, is under sustained attack from the Lord Chamberlains of the 21st century. 

The high priests of the wokerati who in pursuit of what are noble objectives, societal equality and the opening up of literary canons to previously silent voices, have assumed the power of arbitration of who should or not speak on university campuses and what can or cannot be said in wider society.

It is held by some that freedom of speech is under existential threat from the enforcers of political correctness and the “anti-offence” culture. In the world of higher education, some academics worry that university administrators are facilitating the growth of “snowflake” generations of young people by shielding them from the necessary intellectual challenges of exposure to and dealing with diversity in arguments and scholarship through the “protective” mechanisms of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”. They also worry that the “no-platforming” of controversial speakers by strident pressure groups on campus further weaken the intellectual and personal resilience of higher education attendees.

In this article, I seek to unpick the definitions of freedom of speech and political correctness and to determine whether there is a genuine free speech threat from the denizens of woke culture or whether this is a confected crisis; a smokescreen behind which the differentials of power persist.

Freedom of Speech: Legal Status

Freedom of Speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or of a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. The term freedom of speech is sometimes used as a synonym but includes any act of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used (Wikipedia: Freedom of Speech).

Freedom of expression is recognised as a human right under Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the UDHR states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and:

everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; and this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. 

The version of Article 19 in the ICCPR later amends this by stating that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect or reputation of others” or [f]or the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals. (Wikipedia: p.1).

Freedom of speech or expression, is also recognised in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Wikipedia: p.2).

The right to freedom of speech and expression is closely related to other rights, and may be limited when conflicting with other rights. The right to freedom of expression is also related to a fair trial and court proceedings which may limit access to the search for information, or determine the opportunity and means in which freedom of expression is manifested within court proceedings. As a general principle freedom of expression may not limit the right to privacy, as well as the honour and reputation of others. However greater latitude is given when criticism of public figures in involved. (Wikipedia: p.3)

To summarise then, based on the arguments of John Milton, freedom of speech is to be understood as a multi-dimensional right that incorporates not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but three additional distinct elements:

1. the right to seek information and ideas;

2. the right to receive information and ideas;

3. the right to impart information and ideas. (Wikipedia: p.3).

Restrictions on Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech in most jurisdictions is hedged in by variety of limitations often relating to other competing right and liberties, as in the case of libel, slander, pornography, obscenity, fighting words, and intellectual property. Some European countries controversially retain blasphemy laws. Others abound.[1]

Justifications for restriction on freedom of speech usually fall into two categories: the prevention of harm and the avoidance of offence. The harm principle is articulated most forcefully by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, in which he asserts that: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. (Note the absence of a reference to prevention of self-harm). Otherwise, he argues that “… there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”

In 1985, Joel Feinberg introduced the “offence principle”. He wrote “It is always a good reason in support of a proposed criminal publication that it would probably be an effective way of preventing serious offence (as opposed to injury or harm) to persons other than the actor and that some forms of harm expression can be legitimately prohibited by law because they are very offensive. But, as offending someone, the penalties imposed should be higher for causing harm. Because of the extent to which people may take offence varies, Feinberg lists a number of factors to be taken into account when adjudging when offence has been caused, including: the extent, duration and social value of the speech, the ease with which it (offence) can be avoided, the motives of the speaker, the number of people offended, the intensity of the offence, and the general interest of the community at large (Wikipedia: pp.4-5).

Interpretations of the harm and offense principles can be very wide. Many European democracies who proudly proclaim their commitment to free speech nevertheless have laws criminalising Holocaust denial on their statute book.[2] Other countries make Armenian Genocide denial illegal. Harm and offence criteria are used to justify Russia’s LGBT propaganda law restricting speech (and action) in relation to LGTB issues and very likely lay behind the reluctance of some progressive public intellectuals and political figures to spring to the defence of artists and writers subjected to Islamist fatwas and terrorism such as Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Danish cartoonist portrayer of the Prophet Mohammed. It certainly lies behind the extant blasphemy laws on the statute books of European nations.

The clearest defence of freedom of speech against the demands of “offended” religious authorities and faith communities is made by the late lamented contrarian Christopher Hitchens. The following quotations from The Hitch’s prolific literary output lays down succinctly the defining lines of free speech debates:

“… Civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient.”[3] (Mann, Ed.: 2011)

“All major confrontations over the right to free thought, free speech, and free inquiry have taken the same form – of a religious attempt to assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and inquiring one[4] (Mann, Ed p.241).

“In the responses of a liberal society to this direct affront [the Rushdie fatwa), there has been altogether too much about the offended susceptibilities of the religious and altogether too little about the absolute right of free expression and free inquiry. One can and must be ‘absolute’ about these. Unlike other absolutisms, they guarantee rather than abridge the rights of all – Khomeini included – to be heard and debated.[5].(Mann, Ed. p.251)

“So, who will now say that a lone novelist ‘brought it all on himself’ by ‘insulting Islam’.? The insult to Islam, as Rushdie and his supporters argued all along, was the assumption that the Muslim culture itself demanded blood sacrifice.”[6] (Mann, Ed, p.252)

As definitive as Hitchens’ quotes above, is the landmark opinion given by the US Supreme Court in Brandenburg v Ohio (1969) which in overruling Whitney v. California referred to the right even to speak openly of violent action and revolution in broad terms:

[Our][ decisions have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech do not allow a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or cause such action. (Wikipedia: p.5).

The opinion in Brandenburg discarded the previous test of “clear and present danger” and made the right to freedom of (political) speech’s protections in the US almost absolute. Hate speech is also protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as decided in R.A.V. in City of St. Paul, (1992) in which the Supreme Court ruled that hate speech is permissible, except in the case of imminent violence (Wikipedia: p.5)

The Internet and Free Speech

International, national and regional standards recognise that freedom of speech, as one form of freedom of expression, applies to any medium, including the Internet. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 was the first major attempt by the US Congress to regulate pornographic material on the Internet. In 1997, in the landmark cyberlaw case of Reno v. ACLU, the US Supreme Court partially overturned the law. Judge Stewart R. Dalzell, who as one of the three federal judges had in June 1996 declared parts of the CDA unconstitutional, in his opinion stated the following:

The Internet is a far more speech-enhancing medium than print, the village green or the mails…. Speech on the Internet can be unfiltered, unpolished, and unconventional, even emotionally charged, sexually explicit, and vulgar – in a word, “indecent” in many communities. But we should expect such speech to occur in a medium in which citizens from all walks of life have a voice. …The Government can continue to protect children from pornography on the Internet through vigorous enforcement of existing laws criminalising obscenity and child pornography. In my view, our action today should only mean that Government’s permissible supervision of Internet contents stops at the traditional line of unprotected speech.

The penultimate sentence of Judge Dalzell’s opinion makes a brief statement that has alternatively enthused and bedevilled Internet users ever since and which poses the most fundamental dilemma for those excited by the emancipatory potential or those alarmed by its unregulated, Wild West possibilities – “The strength of the Internet is chaos.” (Wikipedia: p.6)

Free Speech on Campus

Since so much of heat generated in free speech controversies has originated within higher education institutions, it is worth looking at the evolution of law and practice in what is becoming an essentially contested arena.

Free speech at public universities and colleges at once raise the most obvious but equally the most paradoxical of constitutional principles in the US. Given the nature of scholastic inquiry, it is obvious that only an open, robust and critical environment will enable the quest for truth. But at the same time, universities are communities that need to balance the requirements of free speech with those of civility, respect and human dignity. They also belong to a larger social order with its own, often competing set of values (Hudson, 2018).

Historically a major driver of freedom of expression has been its relationship to academic freedom. This connection was fully validated in the landmark 1957 Supreme Court decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire. In this case the Attorney-General of New Hampshire, tasked by the State Legislature to determine if there were “subversive persons” working for the State, had asked Paul Sweezy, a visiting lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, questions as to whether he had delivered “leftist content” while lecturing and about his knowledge of the :Progressive Party in the state and its members. Sweezy refused to answer them on the grounds that the First Amendment protected his freedom to develop his academic pursuits. (Hudson: p.2).

The Supreme Court, in a plurality opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, held in Sweezy’s favour and in the process decisively vindicated the notion of academic freedom.

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident … Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding, otherwise our civilisation will stagnate and die. (Hudson: p.2).

However, while subscribing to the First Amendment’s view of truth as a concept discovered in the marketplace of ideas and distilled from a cacophony of diverse opinions, the US Courts have failed to define and delineate the precise extent and nature of academic freedom or to develop a real and robust constitutional doctrine to support it.

Speech Codes: Legal History

This lacuna is glaringly obvious in the specific area that has devilled academic freedom and freedom of speech on US campuses: speech codes. According to case law, speech on matters of public interest is constitutionally protected, while speech on internal institutional business is guaranteed appreciably less protection. The justices have accepted that a university has a legitimate need to maintain order on campus and must have the latitude to govern as it sees fit. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has explicitly pronounced that academic freedom does not protect acts of intimidation, actual threats or disruptive acts interfering with an educational programme. So, it was out of these constitutional settings that speech codes emerged as the mechanisms whereby universities sought to balance freedom of expression and internal order (Hudson: p.2).

Speech codes were introduced by universities to combat hate speech; that is utterances and actions aimed at groups and individuals identifiable by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation including the wearing by white students on several campuses of blackface or fraternity or sorority parties. Supporters of such codes assumed that limiting hate speech and harassment on campuses would protect the emotional physical health of its intended victims and that it would enhance the learning process by enshrining the concept of rational discourse rather than hate-inspired invective and epithet (Hudson: p.3).

In constructing these codes, university administrators relied on the famous “fighting words” exception Supreme Court doctrine enunciated in the 1942 decision Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in which the conviction of the defendant Walter Chaplinsky under a New Hampshire law against offensive and derisive speech and name calling in public was unanimously upheld. In writing this verdict, Justice Frank Murphy formulated a two-tier approach to the First Amendment in which certain “well-defined and narrowly limited” categories of speech, including “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libellous” and insulting or “fighting” words, did not merit constitutional protection as they did not contribute to the expression of ideas nor did they contain any “social value” in searching for truth. (Hudson: p.3).

Some universities actioned the “fighting words” doctrine in order to prevent the discriminatory behaviour that flows from speech deemed to be offensive. Thus in 1990 the University of Texas developed a speech code that placed emphasis on the intent of the speaker to engage in harassment and on evidence that the attempt to do this had led to real harm. In 1989 the University of California invoked the fighting-words doctrine specifically. (Hudson: p.3)

These codes soon began to attract ridicule because of their interpretation and implementation. Perhaps the most famous example was the policy of the University of Connecticut to make “inappropriately directed laughter” and “conspicuous exclusion from conversations and/or classroom discussions” violations of its speech policy; a directive which was to be in validated by a federal court (Hudson: p.3).

As concerns around “political correctness” began to get traction in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, so the issue of what universities could and should restrict became the epicentre of the “PC” debate. The promulgation of speech codes were a response to the oft-justified pressures to eliminate discrimination and harassment from campus from groups who had their own causes to press but in the words of the former university president Sheldon Hackney, in such zero-sum, “drive-by-debate” the “real casualties” were “real answers”. While such heat, rather than light, generating ring-side entertainment “… only reinforces lines of division and does not build toward agreement.” (Hudson: p.4). Furthermore, in trying to curtail the views and voices of some, liberals and leftists appeared to be engaging in a type of ‘reverse McCarthyism’ process; a very uncomfortable place for those for whom freedom of expression should, one would expect a sine qua non.

Many speech codes were struck down on constitutional grounds. In 1989, a federal judge in Doe v. The University of Michigan threw out the university’s code due to its overt vagueness when it forbade language “that stigmatises or victimises an individual” He found that in the guidebook accompanying the code the provision that restricted speech that might prompt laughter at a joke about a student who stuttered in class such speech was protected off campus and therefore could not be banned on it. In the case of the University of Wisconsin code, a federal judge in the case of UWM Post v. Board of Regents, held that the fighting-words doctrine had little value as a guide, since the code declared the utterance of certain kinds of speech unacceptable even if they were unlikely to lead to a breach of the peace. And a seemingly fatal blow was inflicted on speech codes by a unanimous ruling by the; Supreme Court in 1992 in the case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul which though it dealt with a St. Paul, Minnesota ordinance which made it a crime to place “on public or private property a … burning cross or Nazi swastika, which one knows or has reasonable grounds to know arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, colour, creed, religion or gender”, held the ordinance unconstitutional on the grounds that it sought to ban free speech on content (Hudson: pp.4-5).

Speech Codes: Free Speech Zones?

Despite the seemingly devastating body blow from the Supreme Court in R.A.V, v. City of St. Paul, speech codes did not die on US campuses. Some colleges and universities created free-speech zones for protestors and others wishing to exercise their free speech rights. However, despite these seemingly laudable attempts to protect free speech, some universities use the concept of zoning speech to relegating and dispersing speech that they wish to muffle; in other words, censor it. Related issues concern the shutting down or “no-platforming” of controversial speakers and the concepts of safe spaces, which can refer to university policies that shield students from uncomfortable or unwanted ideas, trigger warnings, which refer to professors telling students in class before discussing subjects that may be upsetting to individual students so “as to ensure an inclusive learning environment for students” and micro-aggressions , which refer to slights, petty insults, and comments that cause at least subtle harm to recipients. (Hudson: p.6).

This package is referred to as “New Censorship” by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gilman in their book Free Speech on Campus.[7] Paved with the best intentions of providing an inclusive learning environment and culture, there are plenty of examples of the dystopia of censorship and intolerance that this process has led to. In 2015, a student theatre group at Mount Holyoke, after seeking student feedback, cancelled their annual production of Eve Ensler’s pathbreaking play, The Vagina Monologues, because transgender women do not have vaginas, and the play therefore “offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.” In response, Ensler pointed out that “inclusion doesn’t come from refusing to acknowledge our distinctive experiences, and trying to erase them, in an attempt to pretend they do not exist. Inclusion comes from listening to our differences and honouring the right of everyone to talk about their reality, free from oppression and bigotry and silencing.”[8] She also added that she had previously made available an optional monologue based on interviews she’d conducted with transgender women (Lipstadt, 2019)

In 2017 the University of California at Berkeley was the scene of a riot by students with Antifa help from the outside due to invitations to speak on campus by the prominent Alt-Right spokespeople Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos which eventually led to the cancellation of the event ostensibly on safety grounds. As Berkeley professor Robert Reich observed, “How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter’s arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?”[9] (Lipstadt: p.186)

As disturbing has been the response of some faculty members to free-speech controversies. In 2017, Wellesley faculty who are part of the college’s Commission on Race, Ethnicity and Race expressed concern in relation to the appearance by a professor with controversial views on sexual violence on campus, over “the impact of speakers’ presentations on Wellesley students who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.[10] (Lipstadt: p.186).

In another incident, a biology professor objected to a change to the “Day of Absence” held by his college, Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington held every April, whereby students and faculty staff of colour did not come to campus in order to represent what an all-white society would look like, which invited white students, staff and faculty to leave campus for the day, on the grounds that “… On a college campus, one’s right to speak – or to be – must never be based on skin colour.”[11]. Weinstein was then surrounded and verbally assaulted by students outside his classroom in a subsequent student protest. He and his wife later resigned their faculty positions and left the area after being told by the university administration that the campus police could not guarantee his physical safety from threats of violence he later received (Lipstadt: p.187).

However, some university administrations have acted robustly to defend freedom of speech on campus. Pride of place goes to the University of Chicago whose president Robert J. Zimmer and provost Eric D. Isaacs in 2014 tasked a faculty committee on freedom of expression with drafting a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation.” The committee cited the observation of a past president of the university, Hanna Holborn Gray: 

Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom[12]

Addressing the omnipresence of “trigger warnings”, Jay Ellison, Dean of Students at the College at the University of Chicago, wrote in his welcoming letter to the class of 2020, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”[13].

A manifesto for proper freedom of expression; for proper academic freedom and for a properly inclusive learning environment and culture on campus.

Political Correctness and Speech Codes

Conflicts over curricula content and freedom of expression at higher education institutes have been a major terrain over disputes over political correctness. Political correctness (commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term used to describe language, policies, or measures designed to avoid offence or disadvantage to members of social groups regarded as marginalised, disadvantaged or otherwise stigmatised; particularly those defined by sex or race, (Wikipedia: Political Correctness). PC refers to things you cannot say in public without attracting fearsome moral opprobrium such as justification of the Holocaust and of the institution of slavery (Fukuyama: p.118).

The term PC was originally used to describe the strict adherence to ideological orthodoxies within politics. In debates between American Communists and Socialists in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the phrase was deployed by the latter against the dogmatic rigidity of the former; adherence to a party line regardless of moral and humanitarian substance.[14] According to the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, this original use of the term PC may have morphed into its modern usage by radical students on American campuses in their take-downs of the party line of every far-left sect from the BS (Before the Sixties) era with blatant examples of sexist or racist behaviour of their fellow students being called out in the satirical tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: “Not very ‘politically correct’. Comrade!”[15]

This previously obscure far-left term became a common epithet in conservative social and political challenges to progressive teaching methods and curriculum changes in US secondary schools and universities. Policies, behaviour and speech codes that the speaker or author saw as the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy, were excoriated as “politically correct”. In May 1991, at a commencement ceremony for a graduating class of the University of Michigan, then President George H.W. Bush in his speech opined that “The notion of political correctness … declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits”.[16]

Throughout the 1990s, the term PC became part of standard lexicon for US conservatives; a signifier for conservative anxieties about the left in political and cultural debates beyond academia. Two articles on the topic in late 1990 in Forbes and Newsweek both used the term “thought police” but it was Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex On Campus[17] which really acted as a lightning rod for conservative discontents. Similar hostile vocabulary was used by D’Souza for policies designed to promote inclusivity in academia around victimisation, supporting multiculturalism through affirmative action, sanctions against anti-minority hate speech, and revision of curricula. These trends were, of course, part of a response to the identity politics of feminism, gay rights, ethnic minority and other new social movements. That response received financial backing from conservative foundations and think tanks such as the John M. Olin Foundation, which funded several books such as D’Souza’s. (Wikipedia: p.3)

Liberal commentators argue that the use of the term PC by the Right is done to divert attention from the substantive issues of social inequality affecting the racial and gender groups that it does not consider part of mainstream society. The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee said in 2001[18] that the phrase is an empty, right-wing smear, designed only to elevate its user and, in 2010, “was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic, or queer[19]. Another British journalist, Will Hutton wrote in 2001 that the “sharpest”, most incisive “thinkers on the American Right” were quick to realise “that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by levelling the charge of “political correctness” against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.”[20] Paul Krugman writes that:

the big threat to our discourse is right-wing political correctness, which – unlike the liberal version – has lots of power and money behind it. And the goal is very much the kind of thing Orwell tried to convey with his notion of “Newspeak”: to make it impossible to talk, and; possibly even think, about ideas that challenge the established order.[21]

In relationship to higher education specifically, Glenn Loury wrote in 1994[22] that to raise the subject of “political correctness” when power and authority within the academic world is subjected to contestation by parties on either side of that issue is to attract examination of one’s arguments by would-be “friends” or “enemies”. Instead of more objective, dispassionate assessment of one’s scholastic writing and credentials, partisans of left and right will judge which “side” a writer is on.

Conclusion

In a speech given by Salman Rushdie, one of the most high-profile victims of clerically inspired no-platforming and silencing, in 2015 he, in talking about his personal experience, reflected that “these are not good days for liberty … Freedom seems everywhere in retreat.”[23]. But he was referring to the North American university campus, which he described as becoming an “insult-free zone”. He condemned the fact that threats to freedom of expression in America were coming from “within the walls of the academy” and that it was “young people” who were “most willing to sacrifice, or limit this fundamental right.” He laid down his credo for freedom of speech or expression thus:

To equate social good manners, the way we interact with each other, with the liberty to say what one thinks, even if people don’t like it, is to make a false comparison … Ideas are not people. Being rude about an idea is not the same thing as being rude about your aunt … What you don’t have is the right to use your alleged offended-ness as a reason to stop other people from speaking. (Lipstadt: pp.184-85)

These are statements on freedom of expression that I endorse and I share Deborah Lippstadt’s worry that certain students on certain American (and UK) campuses seem to have taken notions of political correctness, as well as ideas about “inclusivity”, “exclusivity”, and “safe space”, to the point where they trump freedom of speech.” (Lipstadt: p.185). What the real debates about political correctness and the related conflicts around identity politics are about are more likely about language and whether changing language actually solves political and social problems according to Geoffrey Hughes. Critics of what should be more accurately called “linguistic correctness “view it more as a means of flaunting the moral purity, the wokeness of those who practice it and of imposing censorship and moral shaming rather than solving problems. 

Political or linguistic correctness also tends to be pushed by a militant minority who then become de facto agenda setters in the eyes of their followers and opponents rather than representing an organic form of language change. There have undoubtedly been localised free speech crises particularly when identities lash such as those been between some transgender activists and feminists which has led to critics of trans ideology and practice such as Germaine Greer being no-platformed and the emergence of Black Lives Matter as a potentially transformative movement in the wake of the police homicide of George Floyd will bring new demands for the revision of academic and literary canons and cultural artefacts such as public statues of slave traders. But if political correctness can come to be seen as merely a means of ensuring courtesy and respect rather than a template for suppression of legitimate debate and inquiry then it need not conflict with freedom of expression.

Bibliography

Hudson, David L, 2018. Free Speech on Public College Campuses. Freedom Forum Institute.

Fukuyama, Francis (2019) Identity. Contemporary Identity: Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. London: Profile Books.

Hitchens, Christopher, 2011 She’s No Fundamentalist. Slate, 5th March 2007 in Hitchens, Christopher (2011) Arguably London: Atlantic Books

Lipstadt, Deborah (2019) Antisemitism. Here and Now. London: Scribe Publications

Mann, Windsor (2011, Ed.) The Quotable Hitchens. From Alcohol to Zionism. The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens. Cambridge MA: De Capo Press

Wikipedia Freedom of Speech pp.1-18.

Wikipedia Political Correctness pp. 1-145.

[1] Sedition, incitement, classified information, trade secrets, food labelling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, dignity, the right to be forgotten, public security and perjury amongst others.

[2] These include Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Romania.

[3] Christopher Hitchens “Cartoon Debate,” Slate, 2/04/06.

[4] Christopher Hitchens (2007) God Is Not Great. New York: Twelve, p.258.

[5] Christopher Hitchens, Siding with Rushdie. London Review of Books, 26 October 1989.

[6] Christopher Hitchens Monotheist Notes from All Over Nation, 19 October 1998.

[7] Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gilman (2017) Free Speech on Campus. Can free speech coexist with an inclusive campus environment. Yale University Press.

[8] Eve Ensler, “I Never Defined a Woman as a Person with a Vagina,” Time Magazine, 19th January 2015.

[9] Robert Reich “Coulter Should Be Allowed to Speak,” Newsweek, 25th April 2017.

[10] “Wellesley Statement from CERE Faculty Re: Laura Kipnis Freedom Project Visit and Aftermath,” FIRE -Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 20th March 2017.

[11] Bret Weinstein, “The Campus Mob Came for Me – and You, Professor Could Be Next.” Wall Street Journal, 30th May 2017.

[12] The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago, Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, University of Chicago, January 2015, https://freeexpression,uchicago.edu/page/report-committee-freedom-expression.

[13] Jay Ellison to Class of 2020, University of Chicago, n.d., www.intellectualtakeout.org/sites/ito/files/acceptance_letter.jpg; Bret Stephens, “America’s Best College President,” New York Times, 17th October 2017.

[14] Kohl. Herbert (1992) Uncommon Differences: On Political Correctness. Core Curriculum in Education the Lion and the Unicorn. 16(1) pp.1-16.

[15] Hall, Stuart (1994) Some Politically Incorrect Pathways Through Political Correctness in S. Dunant (ed.) The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate pp.164-84.

[16] U.S. President George H.W. Bush at the University of Michigan (4th May 1991). Remarks at the University of Michigan Commencement Ceremony in Ann Arbor 4th May 1991 George Bush Presidential Library.

[17] D’Souza, Dinesh (1991) Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus New York: Free Press.

[18] Polly Toynbee 'Religion Must Be Removed from All Functions of State'. Guardian 12 December 2001.

[19] Polly Toynbee, 'This Bold Equality Push is Just What We Needed.' Guardian 28th April 2009.

[20] Will Hutton, 'Words Really Are Important, Mr Blunkett.' Observer 16th December 2001.

[21] Paul Krugman The New Political Correctness New York Times 26th May 2012.

[22] Loury, G.C. (1st October 1994) 'Self-Censorship in Public Discourse: A Theory of Political Correctness and Related Phenomena.' Rationality and Society. 6(4): pp,428-61.

[23] Kimber Williams, “Rushdie Urges Students to Defend Free Speech,” Emory News Agency, 16th February 2015, http: //news.emory.edu/stories/2015/02/er_salman_rushdie_lecture/campus.html.

Barry Gilheany is a freelance writer, qualified counsellor and aspirant artist resident in Colchester where he took his PhD at the University of Essex. He is also a lifelong Leeds United supporter seeking the Promised Land of the Premiership!

5 comments:

  1. Barry - food for thought as always.
    I think it might work better in terms of disseminating the ideas if you were to write much shorter pieces. What you do works as a long read but I have a view that most people prefer short punchy reads rather than well thought out and researched )but lengthy) pieces.
    But, listen, you put great effort into them and they are here as a matter of record for people to dip into and go back to. I would never seek to discourage you from not putting them here but I think a weekly slot around the key themes would work much better. But if you feel it is better for you to develop these arguments through the long read, feel free.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Firstly Barry I'd like to acknowledge all the effort that goes into your erudite pieces. However I too often struggle with both their length and accessibility, especially for those of us who are less academic (this one perhaps if born a generation later might have ended up with a ADHD diagnosis).
      Have to say though that I was able to stick with you better through this one. I think AM's feedback is worth mulling over. You're obviously an intelligent bloke but your work would benefit me thinks from some hard editing.
      When you accomplish that I believe we'll get greater discussion and greater opportunities for insight from your herculean labours.

      Thanks again,
      H.J.

      Delete
  2. Nor am I trying to deter you because of the formatting work I have to put into long reads!! It goes with the turf.

    ReplyDelete
  3. From what I understand of it, I have always liked the stance adopted by Deborah Lipstadt to free speech on campus. The film Denial is great - Irving was a snake: No holes, No Holocaust. She found his hole and such a boot up it she gave him!!

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  4. Anthony, Henry Joy

    Thanks for your kind, constructive and suppportive comments.

    The idea of a regular column piece a la Christoper Owen and John Coulter is a sound one. I am more of a long view rather in the moment person; more of an essayist than a commnetator or jourmalist (and definitely not hack!)

    I am eternally grateful for TPQ for giving me the forum to punblish my work. It has taken m e many years to fuylly realise that being a wordsmith is my role in life. Would be great to make a living out of it.

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