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Free speech in academia

Antonio De Spuches - Giuseppe Sutera

In an era in which sensitivities are changing and equality has become increasingly important, we are starting to realize that it is definitely not simple to flawlessly blend in free speech and inclusivity. This holds particularly true in universities, which, by their very nature, serve as the crucibles where ideas are born and forged. It is thus critical for society, and for us students in particular, to establish where to set the boundary between these two ideals; otherwise, decisions will be imposed upon us, leaving little room for discussion, should we disagree with them.

Observing what is happening on campuses overseas, we should be eager to take action before we fall in the same ditch. We can in fact look up many relevant cases regarding free speech limitations on some of the most famous US universities like Harvard. Students claim to avoid posting controversial content on social media worrying they might be misinterpreted by fellow colleagues and admins, moreover reporting to be instructed to introduce themselves by stating their pronouns. These are only a few of the many examples that could be made, giving a picture of a tense and illiberal academic atmosphere that could soon extend to European campuses. Having taken note of the American “woke” experience and fearing the damage this might cause to European universities, many academics have indeed already embraced reactionary tendencies to avert the emergence of this trend, particularly in France. Notably, a former French education minister set up a non-partisan think tank to preserve the republican ideal, showing that wokism ideology is feared by both conservatives and lefties.

But then, what exactly is meant by freedom of expression? Are there, if any, limits to it? 

Freedom of expression is often seen as a principle that can exist merely as long as it does not offend others, which might seem like a reasonable proposition according to common sense. However, we believe that this proposition is based on a fallacy, as we cannot define an objective limit to freedom of speech over subjective and personal reasons. On the one hand, can we really expect others to stop thinking or talking just because we do not like their opinions or find them offensive? This question becomes even more pressing when we consider the tendency of many individuals to viciously demand “public authority” to shut down unaccepted opinions. For them imposing something by restrictions is way more convenient than settling things down by debate and reasoning. On the other hand, as we just recalled, there is a really malleable separation between what is considered offensive and what is not: some sensitive people might feel attacked more easily than others, and it is undoubtedly right to respect their sensitivity as long as this doesn’t impact our freedom to respectfully express what we think.

Obviously our freedom of speech should be tolerated as soon as our opinions are not meant to slander someone else. And what we mean by that is that when there is a clear defamatory intent and no space for debate is left, the line has been passed and it becomes a legal matter. Speaking of which, all academic environments are institutes whose task is primarily to educate students to sow their own seeds of thought, not to judge what is just and what is not. It is up to other governmental institutions to make rules and enforce them. There should not be an overlap. 

These reasons are especially valid for academic environments, where students shall be educated to be part of future society and be reasonable persons: we should encourage them to resolve their conflicts by practicing logic and debate and foster diversity of thought and opinion. Indeed, if any opinion was to be somehow disallowed, this would set a precedent for all opinions to be banned, if discordant from single-minded thought, set according to a certain group’s will by excluding any other intervention. In fact, it is far better to be enlightened through debate than to be punished through censorship, as in this case the problem is not addressed at its core, but only temporarily concealed.

Moreover, whereas censorship may prevent certain “objectively” pernicious ideas from circulating freely, it promotes the spread of clandestine channels where these ideas disseminate and radicalize, creating an atmosphere of extreme ideological polarization while also disallowing the spread of progressive and uplifting thoughts by the fear of expressing something unwanted.

Humans are not meant, for their own nature, to always agree with each other and for this reason have achieved great progress and social wealth. We should not forget that freedom of speech has historically been representative of the ‘’underdogs’’, as it allowed them not only to have their requests fulfilled juridically, but also to actually emancipate in society. Thanks to its diffusion, many stereotypes and myths have fallen (think of this: if scientific censorship had not been fought, people would still believe that Earth is the center of the universe). Even though it would be awesome if there were no discords, human nature cannot be changed and the only way to get all in agreement is to set coercive rules on speech and thought. This, however, would lead to a society in which, paradoxically, the diversity many claim to protect would not be tolerated. A society in which, personally, we do not want to live in.

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