Academic freedom – what we can’t choose not to say

photo: Rivka Cocker

photo: Rivka Cocker

On 20th March, the University of Kent held a symposium on academic freedom to mark the centenary of the AAUP 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom. Yet, while some people argue against constraints on speech, others argue for the right not to speak. This posting is an extended version of a talk given at the symposium. It explores whether academic freedom, as it’s conventionally understood, wrongly privileges public speech, academic speech and, indeed, speech itself.

Recent events have thrown up a panoply of dramas for academic freedom advocates: of university staff dismissed or suspended for unacceptable speech; students thrown out of class or HE institutions; and speakers who remain un-invited or find invitations withdrawn thanks to “no-platform” university policies.

I want to approach academic freedom, however, from different terrain. Rather than focusing on the presence or absence of speech restraints, I’m interested in the ways people experience themselves as compelled to make particular utterances, such as the bakery in Northern Ireland, now facing legal sanctions for refusing to make an iced cake in support of same-sex marriage.

How does academic freedom dovetail with the struggles over forced speech? And what limits are there on what we can choose not to say?

In this short piece, I want to explore these questions, and the challenges they pose to a negative conception of absolute discursive freedom in the public sphere by asking:

  • Why privilege public speech?
  • Why privilege public speech within the academy?
  • And why privilege speech over other kinds of action when freedom is called for?
  1. The public sphere

Much debate on academic freedom treats the classroom and academic world as a public domain, where reasons for supporting speech lie in advancing knowledge, civilisation and democracy – reasons closely tied to the wider advocacy of free speech in public. But should public speech be the premier site of freedom? Does it depend on why we want speech to be free?

If free speech is to challenge vested interests, should we be paying more attention to other contexts where relatively powerful interests restrict speech – children’s speech in the home, for instance; employees’ speech in the workplace (which I’ll come back to); radical voices in international fora or minority dissident viewpoints within religious organisations?

This speech is often penalised – kids punished or shut up, employees demoted or sacked, minority religious members excluded from organised denominations in ways free speech advocates seem to accept or ignore (unless the penalty arises from racist, homophobic or sexist speech, which they routinely pay attention to).

If free speech is valorised because it advances social change, how effective is speech compared to other kinds of action or experience? And what kinds of speech really matter?

Gay equality has advanced, I think, far more through normalising kinds of speech, “coming out” acts, and growing familiarity than by so-called rational argument.

Favouring free speech on the grounds that arguments work, that the stronger argument really does crowd out the weaker one, needs a lot more evidence. In many cases, views differ about which is the stronger argument; evidence gets presented by both sides in an endless display of facts and counter-facts (including competing “scientific” ones as I discovered when researching disputes over deer-hunting, in the mid-90s, and whether deer feel pain from being chased by dogs); and intuitive feelings often govern which set of arguments or data resonate and are taken up. As the free speech argument itself illustrates, advocacy on both sides goes on endlessly, without much resolution, or even – we might think – progress.

The argument that removing restraints on public speech brings about social progress also presupposes a particular relationship between speech and action: that decision-making follows successful speech – a vertical liberal model of how things get done.

What conservative Christian refusal, though, reveals, whether it is bakers not making gay wedding cakes, registrars refusing to marry gay couples or organisations excluding gay people claiming the right to expressive freedom is something academic work on “street level bureaucrats” has long claimed – political speech can happen through institutional action, it doesn’t necessarily precede it.

Recognising, even encouraging workers to express their views through how they do (or don’t do) their jobs may be a good thing if we want a more participatory democracy, where decisions and political action occur, and are recognised as occurring, throughout administrative action, but it requires a far more fused understanding of the relationship between speech and action, which I’ll come back to.

The final reason public speech often gets privileged is an expressive one: regardless of what speech does, we should be entitled to say it. So free speech, following this argument, is at issue when it comes to the “right” to mock disabled people, for instance; far less frequently is it urged when it comes to companies using their proprietary rights to stop employees disclosing stuff about their workplace and what it is they do.

If this is an expressive distinction, rather than simply the unthinking protection afforded property rights, is it because people don’t feel psychically compelled to transgress proprietary rights in the way some seemingly feel when it comes to racist, sexist, and homophobic speech?

My feeling is we’ve got privacy here the wrong way around. Instead of challenging those speech acts that are propertied and so taken out of the public domain, free speech advocates focus, often exclusively, on the public right to injurious speech towards already unjustly treated people.

Certainly, tropes about less powerful groupings circulate in our polity, carrying the weight of historical reiteration, and some may feel the need to express them (or let them out), but this, I think, is properly private speech.

When I was doing research at the democratic and free school, Summerhill, I was struck by their policy that certain things had to be done in private away from others – smoking and going to the toilet, being two of them. The need to let out anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist speech, for instance, seems to be similar. Not all kinds of speech (or discharge) are right for all kinds of spaces, and while a little bit of transgression may be productively arousing (for instance, in energising opponents), too much has the reverse effect. There is, I think, something important here – and often not discussed – about how much injurious speech is taking place (as well as what sort and to what degree).

  1. Why privilege academic speech?

If public speech is not due more attention than speech in seemingly private organisational settings, should academic environments receive higher protection than other workplaces?

We may be concerned about increased restrictions in university settings, but arguably there is a growing authoritarian culture in workplaces more generally – as the employment contract gets read, by progressives as well as conservative others, as demonstrating workers’ voluntary choice to provide the tools for another’s endeavour, where exit rather than voice rights demonstrate workers are still free.

Rather than making a case for academics’ exceptional character, we might argue all workers should be equally protected. For while academic freedom sometimes concerns academic research (a site where the positive freedom of funding and support may be as – if not more – important than the absence of restraint), many of the most talked-about cases in recent years relate to remarks any worker might make: challenging managerial decisions; criticising Israel; being misogynistic or racist. My argument isn’t that these remarks are all the same and equally worthy of support, but that academics today should not be treated as exceptional workers. Rather, we should be looking to extend the relative autonomy many have to other workers, recognising that whatever people’s trade, workers engage in political, intellectual and expressive activities, and that autonomy at work isn’t just (or even primarily) about what can be said there.

But what about when it comes to teaching?

The claim teachers should be able to say anything draws once more a firm line between what’s said and done. Academic freedom suggests a teacher can say, for instance, that young women are stupider or brighter than young men, but they cannot mark assessments accordingly. Speech can lead to action in a down-the-road, linear way, but otherwise there’s assumed to be, indeed relied on being, a wall between the two.

We can still, for the most part (although not unequivocally), critically research and speak out against the problems with marketised education – the pervasive presence of grading and assessment to ensure students are ranked and differentially capitalised, so only a few can get to “the very top”. And the capacity to do this work and make these arguments is important. However, academics can’t, without penalty, refuse to participate in the very process of marking and ranking.

As workers, we are free to speak about markets, but not free not to speak them.

And this brings me to my third theme:

  1. Why privilege speech?

If it is okay to research and express reasons why women are brighter or why competition is wrong but it’s not okay to act as a teacher accordingly, is this because public speech doesn’t really matter, that it doesn’t really do anything very much?

There’s an extensive critical literature on the, if often mediated, work which public speech performs – not just focused on the policy or practical changes it may (or may not) lead to, but in its community forging role… or, to put it another way, how speech shapes what is accepted and what’s in question; who belongs and who must defend their right to be included. This is a point critical writers frequently make, that the presence of injurious speech is a differential one. It’s not simply that some people are offended, or in legal terms have “egg shell” skulls, but that these students, teachers and others confronted by remarks bearing legacies of persecution or exploitation to which they’re tied don’t have the choices available to those with a very different relationship to such remarks. Whether they are ignored or responded to, such remarks have a cost for those who have to bear them; and this doesn’t make for an equal educational environment.  If freedom is, at least in part, being able to gain a distance from oneself, bigotry like material needs locks people back into the social conditions and constraints of who they are.

Speech acts – not by itself but rolled up with other parts of action – from warning and threatening to pleasing, stimulating, inspiring and encouraging; from reinforcing existing statuses to changing or transforming them. We therefore need a far more social conception of speech than the speech-as-missiles which free speech offers us.

Rather than thinking of public sphere or academic speech as the property of particular individuals – bolts of thinking or expressed beliefs sent forth in immutable form into the world, we might approach speech as far more communal.

Speech, indeed, may be the wrong word… conversation is perhaps a better one, highlighting the fundamentally social character of what is said; how meaning is forged in situated, collaborative ways; and how even knowing what is said depends on social processes of listening, interpretation and response.

And so, if conversations are part of the commons, we might consider what kinds of conversational commons we want to create, in different contexts, recognising that this is a collaborative effort and responsibility.

Do we want conversations, in university settings, to reproduce familial, gendered, and racialized norms? What means are available to do something different? Banning looks like a bold and clear response – but whether it’s applied to staff, students or visitors, its exercise of authority and power is an uneasy, flawed response that should be used, I think, sparingly. But the equivocal value of bans doesn’t mean hateful or reactionary speech is to be valued.

Academic freedom advocates talk about wanting vibrant, stimulating discursive environments, but exciting new ideas have little, if nothing, in common with much of the speech that advocates end up focusing upon. When it comes to opposing the “no platform” policy applied to speakers invited onto university campuses, provocation, I think, gets treated as a proxy for innovation. The two may overlap but they aren’t the same.

How we make distinctions is, of course, political.

Still, in our debates about what can and can’t be said in public universities, we might remember that our academic right to critique, for instance, capitalism is far less significant than our inability to refuse to “speak” capitalism through what we do – as workers, residents, parents, players, and partners.

In other words, when it comes to the most powerful expressive communications of our era, it’s difficult, impossible even, to opt out.

The provoked question of what we can say with our mouths and pens (or laptops and phones) may be distracting us from the far more significant process of what we can’t choose not to say with our bodies and lives.

Conservative Christian bakers claiming their right to not make cakes that support gay marriage are the icing on far more socially profound forms of forced, embodied expression.

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