The key points I was making were that free speech is not the right to say whatever one wants whenever one wants. There can be reasonable limits on it and those reasonable limits to not give a lie to support for it. I can support free speech and also recognize that there are some things that should not fall under its rubric (by virtual of the criminality, danger, violation of contractual obligations). This is, largely but not exclusively, contextual. One is perfectly fine for me to say in one context becomes problematic in another. It is fine for me to product people by alerting them to a danger. Indeed, I'd view that an an obligation. It is another thing for me to endanger people for my own amusement.
Let me pick up this line of discussion to address what I see as some of the problems with the current crop of free speech advocates. These problems are several:
- Their discussion is not inherently wrong but largely irrelevant because it is so distanced from reality as to be meaningless
- They fail to recognize the importance of context and treat everything as it it were an absolute
- They are involved in a performative contradiction (their defence of free speech, I will argue, is actually and oddly a rejection of it, for some people)
- They make silly -- not wrong but silly -- claims
I make this point because I periodically hear people saying "free speech is needed for learning." It might be. But, free speech by itself does not guarantee learning. Simply attending a lecture and listening to a person talk does not make anyone better educated. It helps, but it also might not because, as I said, so much more is involved. Scholarship, to be clear, is not just about the "free exchange of ideas." It is about rigorous research, commitment, logic, diligence. In short, if learning were just about listening and saying what you thought ... we would not bother to have classes. Scholarship is about refining ideas, properly presenting those ideas, nuance, sophistication, documentation and evidence.
Take a look at a scholarly journal. I don't care which one: Journal of Canadian Studies, Canadian Historical Review, Studies in Political Economy ... it does not matter. You will notice that the authors have perspectives but you will also notice a lot of source citations. Those source citations are not window dressing or, at least, they should not be. They are supporting evidence. Without them, it does not matter what scholar X or Y said. They might write something with which the editors of, say, the CHR completely agree and that is in sync with what the peer reviewers believe. The piece will still be rejected because it fails the first tests of scholarship: documentation and evidence.
What does this have to do with free speech in the academy? Two things:
1. Those who reduce the academy to free speech as if free speech by itself were the key to learning are just plain wrong. Listening and talking without research, thought, reconsideration, documentation, is little more than an op-ed. There is nothing wrong with op-eds. I read them all the time, but they are not the work of the academy. Its focus lies elsewhere. In other words, it presents a misguided idea of what my job is all about (including the justifiable limits that are placed on my free speech).
2. It sells students a bill of goods. It does not tell students about the hard work that needs to go into being a good academic. It tells that that simply offering one's opinion is valuable in itself and deserves a stage. It might. But, it might not. No one wants to hear (or, should want to hear) me speak on Chinese history, horticulture, NMR spectroscopy, or a range of other subjects. Even if I can, it would be a waste of your time. Before speaking on these subjects, I'd need to do my homework. I'd need to have something meaningful to say and that comes not from free speech but from doing my homework!