Freedom of speech comes without compromises

28 August 2006

It's almost impossible to do justice to the hard-hitting talk on freedom of speech and how it relates to academic freedom, delivered two weeks ago by Alan Charles Kors, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, as UCT's 42nd TB Davie Memorial Lecture. Illustrating his talk with often amusing examples from both American institutions and UCT - he'd trawled some revealing UCT handbooks - Kors highlighted the many obstacles to both ideals at universities in these societies. We've opted to simply whet readers' appetites with a few extracts from Kors' talk, and refer them to the entire lecture that will be placed on the UCT website. Enjoy.

  • "American universities have a sadly impoverished notion of what they term 'diversity'-race, sex, and sexuality, as if each of these had but one appropriate worldview and but one appropriate voice. Exhibiting a deep racialism and misogyny of their own, they also believe that blacks, women, gays, and lesbians stand in need of special protections not afforded to others. Where all these groups, in fact, have struggled so fiercely and at such cost for legal equality, our academic leaders believe that they must be protected from arguments or even from the punch lines of jokes, as if these heroic souls were too weak to live with freedom."

  • "The assignment of official group identity always worsens, not betters, human relations at campuses and in the broader society, creating barriers and defensiveness along with injustice. South Africa indeed will decide for itself what compensatory behaviours, practices, and policies it deems necessary to undo prior and unspeakable injustice, but let the goal be a society of liberated individuals, associating across an immeasurable number of affinities beyond blood and history, who individuate, by their own lights, free of external coercion and impositions."

  • "The University of Cape Town's statement on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy forcefully asserts that 'Freedom of speech is a necessary condition for academic freedom,' undiminished by 'whether or not –the views they express, are contentious, politically or in other ways'. Well, apparently not all 'other ways' are equal. Such freedom, according to UCT's policy, 'must be responsibly used and not abused to encourage racism or violence.' Since incitement to violence is a violation of almost every nation's criminal code, the question that would have to be decided within the university, by someone or some body with ultimate power, is what encourages 'racism', in which case such freedom of expression is not granted.

  • "For a moment, think about not the desirability of such an end - as in, 'a student should not' - but about the broad and potentially ambiguous meaning of such a rule as part of an actionable list of offences. 'Intimidating' is likely determinable by any body of reasonable minds. 'Hostile' and 'demeaning', however, are in the eye of the beholder, and are invitations to conflating sincere or provocative social criticism with 'hate speech'."

  • "Legal equality means that we are all either protected by or all potential victims of the same laws. No theorist has come up with a better mechanism to achieve fairness than that of forcing us all to live under the rules that we impose upon others."

  • "Free men and women should not want and do not need their political rhetoric policed by coercive authority. One person's verbal injury is another person's truth. The world works that way, and the answer to speech and labels we find ill-considered and abusive is always more speech and moral witness. Coercion, not speech, is the enemy of freedom."

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