Principles or Pretenses: The Free Speech Question


Should speech be ‘free’ in all contexts? What constitutes acceptable speech, and how should society respond to hateful speech or to harmful ideas?

The question of free speech never left the collective consciousness, but was brought back to the forefront as Stanford students took advantage of the ‘heckler’s veto’ to eject a speaker, a federal judge, from an event this April. It was argued that his past conservative views on LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, and female autonomy were harmful to students on campus and should not be allowed on the premise. 

Coverage of the event and other similar incidents criticized both sides on an alternating basis. Some were defending the students, claiming that they were in the right for shutting-down harmful views before their dissemination onto campus; while others supported the judge for having to handle insults in a place that had originally welcomed him. Still more stood by the Law School Dean Jennifer Martínez for apologizing to the judge on behalf of the college and publishing a memorandum on the importance of free speech, protest, and debate. 

Backed by court precedent that regulates the disruptive adherence to the first amendment, she supported her students’ decision to showcase their disaffection for the judge’s views through posters, signs, and other efforts of peaceful protest, but drew the line at ad hominem attacks during the event that disrupted the learning opportunity it provided for all students– regardless of party affiliations. 

Martínez cited the 1967 Kalven Report published by the University of Chicago which stated, “the university is the home and sponsor of the critics; it is not itself the critic.” Its mission was to sustain a neutral environment suitable for inquiry, academic freedom, and debate. Its job, then, is to welcome all views, regardless of their societal prominence, and allow students to dissect them and justify the righteousness of their positions for themselves.

There are several arguments for the protection of the freedom of speech that cite the autonomy of the speaker or listener to determine the ideas they are exposed to. Yet, Martínez’s document supports neither, but instead justifies free speech through the thinker-based objection to restriction. It purports that every individual has the ability to divide ideas into parts and compare them against others to rationalize their merits and discredit their falsehoods. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proposed the same on the first (podcast) episode of BBC’s Reith Lectures in 2022. Individuals used to fear government censorship – they still do in many parts of the world – but now the danger might be greater in the social sphere. Such censorship arose from good intentions aimed to protect vulnerable peers, but instead has morphed into a vigilante act that not only punishes harmful views, but also creates a hostile environment for other opinions. Adichie describes social censure as a form of tyranny– one that smothers creativity, curiosity, and thought-provoking conversations. However, the question remains whether hate speech targeted at vulnerable members of society should remain unrestricted. 

Also, Say the Right Thing’, published this year by law professors Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, tackles the intersection of vulnerability and speech. They note that most conversations are divided between dominant and nondominant parties, the latter of which bears all of the discomfort resulting from the interaction. The dissatisfaction this discomfort creates has separated society into self-maintaining groups that avoid exposure to external ideologies which pose a threat to internal peace. 

Yet, can that harmony remain if the group’s thoughts are still attacked in the outside world? Adichie, an outspoken feminist and advocate for racial equality, answers no. She admits that she has had the urge to stifle the voices that reject her identity and muffle the issues that underlie her writing. However, the process to replace old ideas with the new should not overtake human experience in return for a comfort that lacks complexity and reflection. 

Adichie puts it eloquently in her lecture: “In this age of maintaining disinformation all over the world, when it is easy to dress up a lie so nicely that it starts to take on the glow of truth, the solution is not to hide the lie, but to expose it and scrub from it its false glow.” Hate speech must be met with counter-speech that discredits it. By doing so, the silence from the former becomes natural not only for the activists that defend their position, but for the rest of society who has yet to see its illegitimacy. 

The ideas Martínez, Adichie, Yoshino, and Glasgow perpetuate advocate for the freedom of diverse thought. On IE’s campuses, where nationalities overlap and ideas collide, these ideas are important to keep in mind. To properly enjoy the intersectionality of the university environment, controversial views must be debated, not silenced. 

Gabriela Georgieva
Gabriela Georgieva
Editor for the news section and second-year LLB student. Interested in writing about social justice issues, particularly in the fields of sustainability and the environment.

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