When does ‘free speech’ become ‘offensive speech’?

Threats to free speech and academic freedom are legion – from authoritarian regimes in China, Hungary, Russia and Turkey, and Middle East states beleaguered by religious fundamentalism, to right-wing populists who believe their cultures and communities are under attack (and often see universities as bastions of liberalism and cosmopolitanism).

But liberals too have got in on the act. Students at Yale University and Princeton University have campaigned for campus buildings to be renamed, one of their targets being President Woodrow Wilson, the author of the ‘Fourteen Points’, the impeccably liberal principles that ended the First World War.

Following the success of students in Cape Town, students at the University of Oxford have attempted to replicate the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, although the offending Oxford statue of the late-Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes is a more modest affair high on the wall of Oriel College.

Confused political responses

Even in democracies, political responses have been confused. For example, in the United Kingdom, the government legislated requiring university leaders to guarantee free speech for unpopular (right-wing?) speakers and resist ‘no-platform’ campaigns that seek to exclude them.

But, at the same time, it insisted that the same university leaders ban the efforts of Islamic fundamentalists to radicalise students, even inventing new categories previously unknown in democratic thought, like ‘non-violent extremism’.

The truth is that ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’ are best seen not as opposing principles, but as part of a spectrum. No sensible person argues that free speech is absolute: first, because no one has the right to call ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre (or use racist language on a multicultural campus?); and secondly, because free speech has always been exercised within a regime of laws.

Indeed, some of its most avid advocates argue that it is precisely the rule of law that guarantees free speech.

A changing context

Rather than attempting to establish some absolute principles, it may be more helpful to identify some trends that impact on this debate. The first is that there are, and always have been, legitimate debates about the (absolute) beneficence of science. In the past, the objection was not so much to science itself but to the uses to which it might be put. Now, some go further.

Stem cell research and human genomics certainly, and arguably artificial intelligence and (some aspects of) cognitive science, are seen as raising questions about the autonomy, and even sanctity, of human existence.

A second shift has been toward a more confused, fractured, volatile and ideologically diverse global environment. The heady days of post-1989 triumphalism, when Francis Fukuyama pronounced the ‘end of history’, are a distant memory.

Ideological struggles have revived with the rise of so-called ‘populism’ – the election of Donald Trump as United States president, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, the rise to political dominance of Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey and others.

Inevitably, these new discomforts are reflected on campus, and provoke sharper contests about ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’.

These are linked to a third big change, the rise of so-called ‘identity’ politics. Traditional markers of social identity such as nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic class have been joined by new identifiers, some of which are (fairly) fixed, such as sexual orientation, while others are more fluid, associated with lifestyle preferences and cultural habits.

The campus is often an arena in which these new more fluid, and even experimental, social markers are most pronounced. Those with non-standard social, cultural or even sexual preferences are no longer content to resist discrimination.

The final and most important change is that the student base of 21st century mass higher education systems is much more heterogeneous than that of the elite university systems they replaced. For all their faults, higher education systems, in most advanced countries, have become ‘rainbow’ systems that reflect the diversity of the societies in which they are embedded.

This diversity has had important implications for debates about ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’.

For the first time, the disadvantaged, with most to gain from a recalibration of the language permitted in these debates, are now present on campus – and often in strength. Classic liberal values, once accepted as universal and absolute, are more likely to be regarded by the former as partial and partisan. The exercise of free speech that appears to threaten their identity or culture and even their still precarious foothold in higher education can easily be interpreted as intolerable.

Responsibilities of universities

Two conclusions can be drawn from the impact of these changes on the tone of the debate about ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’.

The first is that there are no absolutes. No society has ever granted its citizens unrestricted freedom of speech. No campus – although the university should offer a space where this freedom is exercised up to (and even a little beyond) these legally imposed and socially mandated limits – can agree that ‘anything goes’.

On the other hand, although sensitivities and vulnerabilities should be respected, there are clearly limits of the extent to which they can be indulged if free and vigorous intellectual enquiry is in danger of being seriously inhibited. We have just to be pragmatic and try to strike the right balance, which will be different in different places and in different times.

The second conclusion is that universities are, or should be, exceptionally well placed to strike these shifting balances.

Free expression, in the shape of critical enquiry, is a core value in the academy. A university education designed to produce not simply technical experts but also critical citizens depends upon it. So too do progressive science and enlightened scholarship.

But moderation in language, and mutual respect within an academic community, are also core components of a college and university experience – although they should not be invoked too often to protect the thin-skinned or accidentally promote those bent on censorship.

Peter Scott is professor of higher education studies at the University College London Institute of Education, United Kingdom. He is also the Commissioner for Fair Access for Scotland. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.