Do British academics care about free speech?

Freedom of expression is essential for rule of law and economic development, but is increasingly challenged by those who want to be insulated from the views of others in ‘safe spaces’ or the like. So how can academics, ICAEW and others who want to act in the long term public interest best make the case for free speech?

It seems to me that the University of Chicago does a pretty good job in its Statement on Principles of Free Expression but I would appreciate your thoughts.  In particular, is the US really making the running in this field, or is there a home grown alternative?

Of course, if you are a ‘safe placer’ yourself and don’t agree with the premise, please feel free to say so – I may be surprised, but I won’t be offended.

  • Thank you for the comments.  As regards David's comments, I suspect ‘safe space’ means pretty much what those residing in it want it to mean, but if anyone is aware of a useful definition please do let us know. I doubt that many in this community would disagree with his comments on hate speech, but the suggestion that the door should be closed on those who espouse views that ‘most people disagree with’ begs many questions in my mind (even if it was intended to be qualified by the context) - and we have had one answer already. As yet, no comments on the University of Chicago Statement itself, so I have done a bit of digging and see that some UK institutions (Oxford University for example) have similar. Perhaps Chicago is just a better publicist, or does it care more?

  • There is a common misconception about the differences between free speech and what safe spaces are really about.

    There is a huge difference between the right of free speech and the freedom from consequences from what you say.  It should not be illegal to express opinions, nor should it be criminal to hold views, with the exceptions of incitement to violence etc.  But if you have previously used that freedom to espouse racist, sexist, or other speech that most people disagree with, you shouldn't expect an open door and a loudspeaker to be made available to you when you want to say more of the same.  You can keep on saying what you like and not get arrested as a result of it, but you aren't entitled to the attention and platform.  I (like most people) am regularly *not* invited to speak on the BBC News at 10, but they aren't "no-platforming" me; they just don't want to broadcast what I have to say.  That's OK, and it's equally OK for universities to decide that they don't want to invite someone just because they have expressed a desire to speak.

    This restraint is particularly important in the case of hate speech; while often short of calls to violence, the consequences of allowing proponents of hate speech utterly unfettered access to attention are increased threat to its targets.  I would be happy to debate a white supremacist from the safety of the internet - but debating one in real life, especially if you aren't white yourself, isn't just a frank of views, but is actively dangerous.  Safe spaces from extremist speech don't exist because people don't want to hear opposing views - they exist because people know full well what the extremist wants to communicate, and they don't want that invited into their workplace or home.

  • I do agree!  The essence of a liberal democracy is that people are free to hold diverse opinions.  Indeed, many of the social changes that are seen to have benefitted in UK in last 50 years have only been possible because minority groups have been able to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.  This is a sign of the health and well being of our liberal democracy.  It REALLY concerns me when people or groups which challenge a prevailing orthodoxy are vilified or denied a platform to express those views.