Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

University Administration Building, Notre Dame (Inside view)

Are there limits to what one can talk about?

Much of my online reading this week focused on the question of freedom of speech, and whether there should be qualifications to this right. This was prompted by the Counter-Terrorism and Security bill, which attempts to regulate speech at universities (You can read more about this in the first section of this post). But as I read, I became aware that there were more restrictions in place and not just in higher education (see the last section for an example from ELT). It also became clear that these issues can have important, real-life consequences: the Marquette University controversy (in the third section) is a great case study for testing one’s views on whether academic freedom can be completely unrestricted.

The Counter-terrorism and Security bill

UK-based readers will probably know of the Counter-Terrorism and Security bill that is in the process of being legislated (if you’re not, here’s an overview; you can track its progress here). Of interest to Higher Education is the requirement that universities tackle what is described as non-violent extremism on campus. To quote from the bill, universities “must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. According to University World News, to do so, universities might be expected to take the following measures:

…giving at least two weeks’ notice of the booking of public speakers and events to allow for checks to be made; advance notice of the content of the event, and sight of any presentations or footage to be broadcast; establishing a system for assessing the risks of any event and any required mitigating action such as guaranteeing an opposing viewpoint or having someone in the audience monitor the event; and establishing a mechanism for managing incidents or instances where off-campus events of concern are promoted on campus.

While a last-minute revision to the bill acknowledges that universities should pay particular regard to their duty to secure freedom of speech, the home secretary is also empowered to legally compel universities to fulfill their anti-extremism responsibilities if they are perceived as failing to do so.

The view taken by many people in the academic community is that such the act is inimical to the principle of academic freedom. In a letter signed by 520 academics, which was published in the Guardian, the bill is described as “unlawful and unenforceable”. Here’s the conclusion of the letter:

The best response to acts of terror against UK civilians is to maintain and defend an open, democratic society in which discriminatory behaviour of any kind is effectively challenged. Ensuring colleges and universities can continue to debate difficult and unpopular issues is a vital part of this. Draconian crackdowns on the rights of academics and students will not achieve the ends the government says it seeks.

More to read: You can read more objections to the bill in this article by Steve Hewitt (University of Birmingham) in the Conversation. The full text of the bill can be accessed here.

Safe spaces: at what cost?

While the threat to academic freedom by anti-terrorist legislation is quite obvious, it seems that it is not the only way in which the principle of free speech is compromised. Many attempts by universities to create ‘safe space’ for all communities on campus may also have unintended consequences. The principle of ‘safe space’ involves restricting discourse that vulnerable groups might find threatening. At its most uncontroversial form, it means that universities provide no platform for the dissemination of hate speech. Sometimes, however, it can be taken to extremes, as the following extract from the Guardian demonstrates:

The row comes amid a growing sense of crisis around debate in British universities. In recent months, Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; the Cambridge Union was asked (but refused) to withdraw its speaking invitation to Germaine Greer because of her views on transgender issues; officials at London Southbank took down a “flying spaghetti monster” poster because it might cause religious offence; UCL banned the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying “equality is a false God”, and Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from their freshers’ fair. The Sun is banned on dozens of campuses because of Page 3. Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines song has also been banned by many student unions.

Such qualifications to the principle of free speech have made at least some academics question the scope, motivation and effectiveness of attempts to regulate academic discourse. Inside Higher Education presents some skeptical views (but read the comments as well, for some corrections to the factual accuracy of their story). Here’s a typical view:

The idea of putting things beyond debate, particularly in the name of safety and emotional protection, says that some things are [too] dangerous to be discussed. I think university should be the place where students do confront all different kinds of ideas and engage with these discussions and don’t have discussions closed down,” Williams, senior lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent, said. “The real world doesn’t have a ‘safe-space policy’ — students are going to be confronted by UKIP [a far-right party] MPs and The Sun newspaper, and the danger of creating university as a safe place is that students don’t learn how to deal with these things.

More to read: Attempts to find a workable compromise between the universities’ duty to provide safe space to their students and the mandate to secure free speech go back a long time: here’s a view from 1996 and a few more recent ones: 12. For more attempts to regulate student behaviour, including a ban on sobreros and “buffoonery”, you may want to read this article.

The Marquette Controversy

The question of academic freedom is not just an abstract debate on the relative importance of principles; it affects every aspect of the day-to-day operations of universities. One incident that has drawn some attention on the media involves the controversy in Marquette University, a Jesuit university in the US, over the rights of tutors to regulate discourse in their classrooms and the rights of faculty to criticize the actions of their colleagues online.

From what I have been able to piece together, a graduate student was delivering a course on ethics, and was asking for examples of how Rawls’s Equal Liberty principle can be applied to contemporary social issues. In addition to various uncontroversial answers such as the requirement to wear seatbelts when driving, one student suggested that gay couples should not be allowed to marry, and that comment seems to have escalated into a row over the right of free speech and the principle of tolerance. This was encapsulated in the tutor’s view that “There are opinions that are not appropriate [in the context of the class], that are harmful, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions“, and the student’s view that it was his “right as an American citizen” to challenge views with which he disagreed. (You can read the student’s account of the story in her personal blog.)

Subsequently, a tenured professor at the same university reported on the row in his blog, naming and shaming the graduate student involved and providing what is said to have been a selective account of the event. The student, it appears, has decided to continue her academic career elsewhere, in part due to an onslaught of abusive comments that the professor’s post triggered, and the professor is now facing disciplinary charges, which may lead to his loss of tenure and dismissal. The following extract is from the university dean’s letter to the professor:

Tenure and academic freedom carry not only great privileges but also vital responsibilities and obligations. In order to endure, a scholar-teacher’s academic freedom must be grounded on competence and integrity, including accuracy “at all times,” a respect for others’ opinions, and the exercise of appropriate restraint. Without adherence to these standards, those such as yourself invested with tenure’s power can carelessly and arrogantly intimidate and silence the less-powerful and then raise the shields of academic freedom and free expression against all attempts to stop such abuse.

Update: Shortly after writing this post, I came across an excellent discussion of the Marquette controversy in the Acedeme Blog. You can find it here.

And what about ELT?

Moving from higher education to the more comfortable world of English Language Teaching, it seems that the profession is also facing similar questions, even though they are not as readily acknowledged. In an interesting post (update: no longer active) in Compelling Conversations the question is raised “why so many EFL and ESL textbooks are bland, boring, and heavily censored”. Here’s an answer:

As I heard explained at two fascinating TESOL workshops for EFL material writers at the 2011 conference in New Orleans, the current practice for EFL publishers is to simply collect all the possible objections, adopt the “red lines” of all countries, and uniformly impose these taboos around the world. The default advice for EFL material writers includes prohibiting not only politics, alcohol religion, sex, and nudity (predictable), but also mention of luck, negative emotions, Israel, gender roles, and pork.

Whether this observation means that teachers should try to include more controversial topics in their syllabuses, or follow the publishers example, I do not know.

Featured Image by Dan Dzurisin @ Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND



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