Double Take: Speaking on Freedom of Speech

Weekly Article
Dec. 17, 2015

Double Take: Two writers. Two views. One issue.

Free Speech Is Not an Easy Way Out

A Yale lecturer resigned from her teaching post after an email she sent to students triggered heated discussions about campus racism. In her email, the lecturer, Erika Christakis, voiced concern that calls to limit expression by censoring Halloween costumes issued by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee may do more harm than good to students still learning about the ways of the world.

Student and faculty groups at Yale and nationally in turn used Christakis’ email as catalyst to justify a problematic stance bordering racial and ethnic insensitivity, claiming protection under first amendment rights. Christakis, they said, acted with the best intentions in mind and is entitled to free speech.

The backlash and other reactions against or in support of Christakis’s email reveal a great deal not just about a popular US (mis)understanding about free speech—primarily defined by a misleading notion that all citizens are entitled to limitless expression—but also expose a deep-rooted inability of institutions of higher learning to engender meaningful discussion capable of dismantling obstacles barraging mutual respect.

The events at Yale thus serve well as an example of this failure of the free speech rhetoric pervasive in the US broadly and institutions of higher learning specifically. Scholars and activists throughout the US repeatedly cited examples of implicit and explicit racism by way of calling for more substantial institutional practices designed to help students productively face the differences of others. Instead of extensive revamping of institutional practice—as, for instance, efforts made at Washington University in St. Louis or University of Southern California to devise diversity courses for incoming students—most institutions of higher learning fail to offer sustained and impactful dialogue on race and ethnicity.

A public email such as Christakis’s only incited confused and passionate replies that either sided with her or against her. Reactionary institutional practices, such as town hall meetings or roundtables on diversity, often prompt shortsighted and superficial means of “addressing” racist incidents on campuses without proposing lasing change. Without pervasive programming for incoming students followed up regularly throughout academic studies—the sort of programming that teaches students import of empathy, collegiality, and the richness of diversity—students cannot be expected to think deeply and critically about our nation’s most pressing social problems related to racism.

The concept of free speech is not a right of which students and university community members need to be reminded, but one that requires critical (not just safe!) spaces on campus in which all members of the university community can hope to learn what it means to live responsible lives in a diverse world. Free speech cannot be an obstacle to meaningful engagement with social issues despite the sobering fact that it oftentimes it turns into precisely that.

Ervin Malakaj is faculty at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

The Freer the Speech, The Freer the Speakers

Although free speech is touted as a foundational right of democracy – vital for ensuring government transparency and accountability within the public sphere – its application differs considerably across Western-style liberal democracies. For example, the primary difference between the British and US approaches to free speech is that whereas the latter has a constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, the former does not. In the US, the First Amendment binds the state from impinging upon free speech and, for many Americans across the partisan divide, symbolises the bedrock of their civil liberties and political freedom. Many (myself included) may feel that free speech is currently questioned on American campuses, but the reality remains that the ideological significance of free speech under the First Amendment is historically unique to the US, and has no equivalent in Britain, where free speech has been attained through the gradual abolition of restrictions rather than a statutory assurance of its protection.

In recent years, the conditions for free speech in Britain have been growing increasingly dire. The Human Rights Act of 1998 institutionalised the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights – including freedom of expression – in British law. However, the Act has failed to constrain the government from passing a number of measures that undermine free speech, including laws against hate speech that have gradually bloated to encompass broader categories of offence, and anti-terrorism legislation that has been used to suppress non-violent organisations and protests. Particularly worrying is the new British counterterrorism strategy aiming to “ban extremist organisations that promote hatred and draw people into extremism; restrict the harmful activities of the most dangerous individuals; and restrict access to premises which are repeatedly used to support extremism.” Fears that the nebulous definition of ‘extremism’ will lead to cases of wrongful prosecution have already inspired an unlikely coalition of secularists and evangelical Christians (among others) to challenge the proposal. Furthermore, the current administration has slated the Human Rights Act for repeal and replacement by the ‘British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’, which is expected to undercut rights protection by allowing the government to decide when our fundamental freedoms should apply. Unfortunately, due to the current political climate surrounding the refugee crisis, Paris attacks, and airstrikes on Daesh in Syria, it appears that demands for security will continue to trump the protection of free speech and associated civil liberties in Britain. To those across the proverbial pond who want to limit free speech, the developments in Britain should show that only unchallenged free speech consistently protects everyone on every side.

Monika Richter is currently completing a M.Phil in European Politics at the University of Oxford, where she serves on the editorial committee of the Free Speech Debate.