Free Speech Does Not Mean the Freedom to Abuse against the Grain

The Independent (London, England), September 6, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Free Speech Does Not Mean the Freedom to Abuse against the Grain


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".

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Free Speech Does Not Mean the Freedom to Abuse against the Grain
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