what is a “free speech absolutist?”

In discussions of campus free speech, people toss around the phrase “free speech absolutist.” What does that mean? First, you have to define what a college is: an educational institution set up for adult education and research in various scholarly areas. What would it mean for there to be “absolute free speech?” Here is one way to think about it:

  • Absolutist free speech would mean that the college has to let anyone come to campus and say anything they want.
  • Absolutist unfree speech would mean that you can’t say anything unless it was approved by the college, which can censor whatever it wants.

In American history, colleges have shifted dramatically to the stronger tradition of free speech. It used to be the case that professors and administrators controlled most public speakers and clubs didn’t do much. Now, most colleges has a ton of student groups that are given free reign to invite whatever speaker they want to campus. And they do so without too much faculty interference.

Thus, most readers are already leaning toward the “absolute” side of things, but not totally.  Most people, including myself, don’t believe that colleges are obliged to host anyone who asks for a space to talk, but they do give a lot of leeway to students and faculty. The real issue happens when a professor or student invites a speaker who is genuinely controversial.

I think the anti-free speech people mean something like “if someone says something dangerous, we should have the right to ban them from campus.” Sometimes this is honest; people are genuinely alarmed by certain ideas. Sometimes it is just a way to shut down people who disagree with you.

But ultimately, how should we decide what is dangerous? In some cases, it is pretty obvious. If someone spouts a call for anti-Semitic violence, for example, they won’t be welcome. But, what if, a speaker thinks that immigrants are more likely to commit crime? Or that some that some ethnic group has an undesirable trait? In such cases, there are not calls to violence. Instead, they are unpopular opinions that can be subject to scholarly debate.

Ultimately, it lays on the shoulders of students and faculty to decide what unpopular opinions should be debated on campus. What if students or faculty invite crazies? Here, I like the view of Emily Chamlee-Wright, who advocates higher levels of faculty involvement. Faculty can say, “do you feel that you want your name attached to this idea? Is this really a good example of scholarly debate?” Normally, faculty sponsors for clubs intervene very little but with some more effort, faculty can help maintain an atmosphere of free speech on campus while having it applied in a more thoughtful way.


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Written by fabiorojas

September 13, 2018 at 6:23 pm

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Extremely relevant in Ontario. The new provincial government has mandated all universities and colleges use the Chicago definition or lose funding.

    One important response:



    September 15, 2018 at 2:23 am

  2. You might think that it is obvious that somebody calling for anti-Semitic violence can and should be banned, but it isn’t at all obvious if you are a neo-Nazi who believes Jews constitute a real threat, which some do. People are today claiming the right to advocate killing people via war or deportation or incarceration. People today are certainly claiming the right to give speeches advocating that other people should not have civil rights. People are today claiming the right to advocate the revolutionary change in government.

    And people are today opposing the right of people to give speeches saying that the US is racist or that violence may be necessary to supplant White supremacy. People were FIRED for saying that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowardly and had reasons for their actions. (They were not saying they approved of the actions, just that they were explicable. But even explaining a behavior can evoke a punitive response when threat is high enough.)

    There is lots of evidence that speeches that demonize or criminalize or pathologize groups of people are associated with a rise in violent attacks against those people. Similarly, there is lots of evidence that the apparent rise in power of another group may seem threatening and may increase attacks against members of that group by other groups.

    Then we get into the psychological harm issues. I can hardly feel unthreatened if somebody is giving a speech that asks the question of whether I deserve civil rights or am a member of a group that is viewed as inherently inferior or threatening. Lots of White people feel threatened and upset at the mere discussion of the idea that White people generally benefit from White supremacy. People in stigmatized groups get upset and worn down at conversations about whether they deserve to be treated as full human beings and citizens.

    Wading your way through these issues requires recognition of genuine differences in power as well as a recognition of the valid reasons people have for getting upset at the mere discussion of some topics.

    I don’t see these issues as easy at all.

    I do agree with you and with what Gabriel Rossman wrote earlier that it is very helpful for Universities to ask people to consider the difference between whether something is legal and whether something is a good idea, something you really want to be associated with. And I think it is entirely appropriate and legitimate to evaluate the whole context and consequences of events.



    September 15, 2018 at 4:16 pm

  3. olderwomen: the “not a good idea” people are not so different from neo-natzis. At least he natzis don’t pretend to be enlightened.



    September 20, 2018 at 8:01 pm

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