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The Threat of Free Speech in the University

Free speech in a university is a very different thing from free speech in Congress or Parliament, freedom of the press, or free speech in the street. Each milieu has its own conventions and traditions, and each must protect its freedoms for its own purposes and with a view to its own particular good. In everyday conversation, it is not as a rule advisable that all aspects of a question be openly discussed, and laws of libel, public order, and sedition protect people from hurtful or provocative language.

Those laws have been radically extended in recent times, with the invention of “hate speech” as a quasi-legal category, and legislation like the UK 2006 “Racial and Religious Hatred Act,” which makes it an offense to “stir up hatred” toward racial and religious groups. The emerging consensus is that, in the arena of everyday encounters, untrammeled freedom of speech has costs that might well outweigh its benefits, and the law has the right to intervene on behalf of public order.

What, however, should be the rule governing free speech in a university? A modern university is very different from the medieval institution from which it descends. The medieval university contained faculties of law and medicine, and it extended its reach into mathematics and the natural sciences. But it was built around the study of the dogmas and authorities of the Church. A large part of its intellectual labor was devoted to identifying and extirpating heresies, and although you could do this only if you were free to express those heresies in words and to examine the arguments given in support of them, you were not in any real sense free to affirm them. It would be quite misleading to say that the medieval university was devoted to the advancement of free inquiry, since freedom stopped dead at the exit from faith—even if that exit could be discovered only by a kind of free inquiry.

Read more at Imaginative Conservative

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