Free speech is one of the pillars on which we like to think our society rests. It’s taken us down some odd roads in recent years, from the Supreme Court decision establishing the principle that political candidates have the rights to buy as much advertising as they please to the more recently established protections on virtual child pornography.

Paul Wong
Peter Cunniffe

Those are the relatively understandable legal ramifications of free speech however.

Free speech has a great deal of meaning for people outside the legal sphere as well. Especially in academia, free speech is regarded, sensibly, as essential. But in the popular imagination, the term “free speech” has gone beyond a guarantee against being prohibited from saying what you please and has come to include the right to say anything you want, as offensively as you want, wherever you want.

A good example of this occurred in mid-November when Harvard’s English department invited Oxford lecturer Tom Paulin to give a speech on campus. Paulin, a poet and television arts commentator, has been the center of a great deal of controversy recently over remarks to the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram Weekly earlier this year. Commenting on Jewish settler in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Paulin declared “They should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.”

This invitation understandably provoked protests by students, faculty and alumni who objected to the presence of a man who supports killing Israeli civilians. Faced with the protest, Paulin was quickly disinvited by several professors, seemingly diffusing the controversy. After a meeting of the full department a week later, however, Paulin’s invitation was reissued. Explaining their decision, the department chair wrote that a significant factor in their decision was “widespread concern and regret for the fact that the decision not to hold the event could easily be seen, and indeed has been seen-both within Harvard and beyond-as an unjustified breach of the principle of free speech within the academy.”

There are two possible explanations for this statement. The English department could have just decided it didn’t like being bossed around and chosen to defy its many critics by reinviting Paulin – but also didn’t want to sound so petulant and gave the more high minded free speech explanation. Or, as is more likely, there probably are a lot of people who really did see this as an affront to free speech.

Is it though?

A school certainly has the right to invite who it likes to speak. However, it’s difficult to think of anyone else who is so uninhibited in his advocacy of ethnicity-based killing who speaks at university sponsored events. I imagine this is because most advocates of violence are not notable poets, but there are also probably many violent people who have interesting this to say about a whole range of subjects. I doubt a Ku Klux Klan member (whether he so brazenly advocated killing or not) would ever receive an invitation to speak at Harvard, even if it was just about poetry or literature. Schools clearly have some leeway in deciding who they invite to give lectures.

As the English department chair said, this is about something that “could easily be seen” as a breech of the principle of free speech. It was not something that was a breech of that principle.

But the appearance was apparently enough. Rather than a promoter of murder being turned away because giving him a university-sponsored platform was, on reflection, a bad idea, the situation became one of defending (apparent) free speech.

Not getting to speak at Harvard because you’ve said lots of malicious and immoral things does stigmatize and in encourage, to some extent, others with such ambitions to not say such things. But a universities’ reasonable control over who speaks at its official events is not censorship. When a particular forum, even a university, turns away a speaker, it does not necessarily mean free speech has been damaged.

As with Paulin’s situation, many people cry free speech today when it is unwarranted. Many whose ideas come under assault use it reflexively to defend themselves when they merely have no better argument. But “I can say what I want” is a declaration of the obvious. It shouldn’t win arguments.

So why did Harvard reinvite a speaker it had already dumped when they seemed to realize the free speech complaints were only a matter of appearance to some and not reality? Free speech obviously is extremely important to them and it should be. But their attempt to prevent even the appearance of infringing on it shows why giving in to mere appearance and those who cry “free speech” rather than make actual arguments is a bad idea. Free speech is an important right, but it shouldn’t be dumbed down.

Peter Cunniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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