Excerpted with permission from Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century by A. C. Grayling. Copyright © 2012. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
There are two bedrock civil liberties without which the very idea of civil liberty is empty. They are freedom of speech and due process of law. Free speech is fundamental because without it one cannot have any other liberties. One cannot claim or exercise liberties, or defend them when attacked; one cannot defend oneself when accused, or accuse those who do one wrong; one cannot have democracy in which information, views and policies are expressed, debated and challenged; one cannot have education worth the name, if there are things that cannot be said; one cannot express one’s attitudes, needs, feelings, responses, anger, criticism, support, approval or beliefs; one cannot ask all the questions one needs to or would like to; and for all these reasons, without free speech one would be in a prison made of enforced silence and averted thought on important matters.
So fundamental is free speech that in the United States the First Amendment to the Constitution, in the document that constitutes the Bill of Rights for American citizens, is an express protection of the rights to freedom of speech and the press, to assemble, to petition the legislature, and to think and believe freely in matters of religion and non-religion. Indeed every human rights instrument, from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 19) to the European Convention on Human Rights (article 10), and most written constitutions (even those that window-dress tyrannies) have clauses protecting free speech. Note that many of these instruments quite rightly prefer the term “freedom of expression” in cognizance of the fact that “expression” is broader than “speech,” for it includes artworks, theatre performances, novels, dance and much besides that is not specifically or only speech as such. However, “free speech” and “freedom of expression” are functionally synonymous in the civil liberties sense, and are widely understood as such.
The fundamental justifications for freedom of expression are as follows. First, it is an intrinsic right of every individual not to be forced to think, speak and believe at the dictate of others, but to do these things of his or her own free accord. Secondly, it is of the essence to the possession and protection of other liberties that individuals have this right. Thirdly, in the absence of the first two considerations, the full development of the human individual is vastly more difficult and in most cases not even possible. Fourthly, freedom of expression is essential to the interchange of ideas and views, and discussion of them, without which society cannot be healthy or mature. Fifthly, by means of the fourth point it promotes and aids the quest for truth or at the very least sound and responsible knowledge. Sixthly, it is a vital check on government, which can too easily veer into tyranny without it.
As every proponent of freedom of expression must allow, the right to it is not an unqualified one. The standard way of explaining why is to cite the case of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Because it can do harm, and because it can be used irresponsibly, there has to be an understanding of when free speech has to be constrained. But given its fundamental importance, the default has to be that free speech is inviolate except … where the dots are filled in with a specific, strictly limited, case-by-case, powerfully justified, one-off set of utterly compelling reasons why in this particular situation alone there must be a restraint on speech. Note the words specific, strictly limited, case-by-case, powerfully justified, one-off, utterly compelling, in this particular situation alone. Give any government, any security service, any policing authority, any special interest group such as a religious organization or a political party, any prude or moralizer, any zealot of any kind, the power to shut someone else up, and they will leap at it. Hence the absolute need for stating that any restraint of free speech can only be specific, strictly limited, case-by-case, powerfully justified, one-off, utterly compelling, in this particular situation alone.
For as these remarks suggest, the enemy of all that freedom of expression makes possible—the six points, at least, detailed above—is censorship. It comes as a surprise to most people to learn how universal censorship is, even in contemporary Western liberal democracies. In every sphere and at every level censorship is the norm. Governments censor information before it reaches the public. Newspapers and television news reports do not show pictures of maimed bodies on battlefields, and by their sanitizing censorship inadvertently help keep war going, for the public would be revolted by the truth, and sentiment would swing violently against armed action. Teachers and parents censor what they tell children. Leaving things out, doctoring pictures, maps, reports, news, information, whether for tendentious purposes, political “spin,” or in the supposed interests of the tender-minded recipients, are all forms of censorship. It is ubiquitous and constant. It does vastly more harm than good.
The kinds of circumstances that justify a case for a specific, powerfully justified restraint on free expression are those in which what is at stake are perjury and contempt of court, hate speech, and state or company secrets expressly and justifiably (they are not always the latter) protected by confidentiality requirements. Slander and libel should not be protected by prior restraint of speech, but by remedies after the fact, if a jury decides they have occurred. “Hate speech” is an important matter, but here one has to be careful to note that hate speech can only justifiably be linked to aspects of people they cannot choose—sex, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and disability if any—whereas their political or religious affiliations, dress sense, voluntary sexual conduct, and the like, are and should be open season for criticism, challenge, and even mockery. Most votaries of religions attempt to smuggle “religion” into the “age, sex, disability” camp, and though it might be thought an instance of the last of these, it is not sufficiently so to merit immunity from challenge and satire.
Some of the things people would like to list as appropriate reasons for curtailment of free speech are profanity (swearing), blasphemy, pornography, and insult (other than directed at the sex, ethnicity etc. camp mentioned); and even—mirabile dictu—such things as heads of state and “national identities” are “protected” from free speech in some places, for example Turkey, where people are legally barred from insulting “Turkish national identity,” for instance by mentioning the hideous atrocity of Turkey’s massacre of Armenians during the First World War.
A particular aspect of freedom of expression that has much importance is “academic freedom.” This is the freedom of those who teach, research and study in academic institutions such as universities and colleges, to pursue enquiry without interference. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding is hampered, if not derailed altogether, by external control of what can be studied; and the silencing of teachers and researchers, especially if they make discoveries unpalatable to one or another source of authority, stands in direct opposition to the quest for truth.
It is a widely and tenaciously held view among all involved with academies of higher education in the world’s liberal democracies that freedom to teach, research and study is essential for the communication of ideas, for formulation of the criticism, dissent and innovation required for the health of a society, and for the intellectual quality of its culture. Censorship and political control over enquiry lead to the kind of consequences exemplified by the debacle of biological science in the Soviet Union which followed the attempt to conduct it on dialectical-materialist principles, concomitantly with the expulsion of “bourgeois” biologists from laboratories and universities.
Although academic freedom seems on the face of it an obvious value, it has been often and widely contested. It does not exist in totalitarian dispensations such as the People’s Republic of China, and even in a country with a jealously protected constitutional right of free speech, the United States of America, a variety of formal and informal obstructions to academic freedom exist.
In the “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” in the United States it is conceded that teachers must avoid controversial and irrelevant matter in what they say in the classroom, and although they are free to hold and express whatever opinions they like, they must do so with restraint and make it clear that they speak for themselves alone. This is the opposite of the system that obtained in the German universities from the eighteenth century onwards; there Lehrfreiheit meant that professors were free to convert their students to their own way of thinking, and could teach whatever they liked; but were not permitted to express their opinions (especially their political opinions) outside the classroom.
Another component of academic freedom is the autonomy of academic institutions to appoint teachers, specify syllabuses of learning, and choose whom to admit as students.
Since universities ceased to be schools for older adolescents and became research institutions and centres of genuinely advanced scholarship and instruction, with the concomitant professionalization of university teaching so that scientists, historians and such dubious individuals as “philosophers” and literary theorists came to be paid salaries for their entire lifetimes, they have come to have a dual nature: the sciences have become highly significant motors of change and innovation in society, while the “humanities” have become, by and large, stagnant and irrelevant pursuits, which do very little for those who study them apart from giving them three or four years’ extra maturation time and occasionally an advantage in employment terms because, mainly, of the lucky adjunct that the three or four years in question enabled some of them to read more widely than is usual in the population at large. This single simple fact is a not insignificant one, and is possibly the only reason why a “higher education” in the humanities has any value. But it could of course be secured far more cheaply and probably effectively if people were just encouraged to read. The intellectual life of Western countries happens almost exclusively outside universities; within their humanities departments jargon-laden nit-picking, the project of speculating polysyllabically more and more about matters of less and less importance, consumes time, energy and resources in a way that sometimes makes even some of its own beneficiaries, in their honest moments, gasp.
Still: it takes a lot of compost to grow a flower. Rather like contemporary art, with regard to which one stoically accepts that many frogs have to be kissed before one of them turns into a prince, the humanities on their life-support machine of salaried tenure occasionally produce something, justifying not just their existence but the freedom—the academic freedom—that allows the miracle to occur.
And having said all that, I shall now retract some of the cynicism (which, experto crede, has enough justification to warrant it), and repeat the most significant of the points made above, which is this: it matters that there should be places where ideas are generated and debated, criticized, analysed and generally tossed about, some of them absurd, some of them interesting, a few of them genuinely significant. For this to happen there has to be freedom to moot radical, controversial, silly, new, unexpected thoughts, and to discuss them without restraint. Universities are one of those places; humanities departments within them make a contribution to this, and as such justify at least some of the cost they represent to society. For this academic freedom, as an instance of freedom of speech more generally, is vital.