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Why banning controversial voices from universities is bad practice

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Two years ago the University of Cape Town (UCT) “disinvited” Flemming Rose from giving its annual T.B. Davie Academic Freedom Lecture. Rose is the cultural editor of the Danish publication, Jyllands-Posten that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons.

The term disinvited was coined by the American-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It refers to speakers who have been disinvited after being invited to speak at universities. Between 2000 and 2017, the foundation had found 192 incidents in which students or members of university staff had pushed for speakers to be disinvited.

In rescinding the invitation, UCT’s former vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, invoked the language of “safe spaces” and asserted that bringing Rose to campus:

might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus.

Last year the Stellenbosch University found itself in a similar situation when a group of Israeli scholars withdrew from a planned conference. They cited feelings of inhospitality and exclusion. In this instance, after meeting with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the university’s vice-chancellor, stated that:

As a research-intensive university of global significance, we continue to welcome academics from all over the world at Stellenbosch University -– including scholars from Israel -– and co-create excellent research with significant social and academic impact.

This conundrum is being faced by universities across the world. In 2017 a survey of 115 UK universities showed that 54% actively censored speech, 40% stifled speech through excessive regulation. Only 6% were deemed truly free, open places.

In Australia, the Institute of Public Affair’s Free Speech on Campus Audit 2017 showed that the majority of Australian universities limit the diversity of ideas on campus. For example, 34 out of the country’s 42 universities (81%) have policies and actions that are hostile to free speech on campus and seven (17%) have policies and actions that threaten free speech on campus. Only eight of Australia’s 42 universities (19%) have an explicit policy that protects intellectual freedom.

In principle, academic freedom infers that both staff and students at universities have the right to participate in intellectual engagement and debate, without fear of censorship. This right extends into speech, writing (textual or digital), without fear of reprisal.

In this sense, academic freedom is akin to the preservation of intellectual autonomy. Yet, as the two South African examples show, speakers being disinvited is not uncommon in South African universities.

We argue strongly against the practice in our latest book on free speech at universities. We do so on the grounds that disinvitation compromises the very idea of human engagement and deliberation. This is because the act of disinviting an individual, for whatever reason, is in itself an abandonment of freedom and speech.

It not only stifles any opportunity for engagement with difference or controversy, but it implies that academic freedom is the preserve of those who are in agreement. If we are all in agreement, then where is the debate, and new ways of thinking?

Academic freedom is necessary for democracy

Firstly, regulating hurtful speech without re-signifying it, that is creating opportunities where harmful speech is challenged and re-directed, can aggravate the volatility between groups that favour controversy – and those who oppose it.

If controversial speakers are denied opportunities to speak at universities, it can be claimed that their right to freedom of speech has been hampered. Universities need to guard against what the Times Higher Education refers to as becoming “hotbeds of left wing bias”, or “political monocultures”.

Universities can’t be considered “safe places” where controversial ideas of people are considered at odds with liberal and or radical voices and deserve to be stunted.

Secondly, when controversy is opened up, people have an opportunity to scrutinise the controversial statements and find ways to rebut dissenting and provocative claims. Regulating speech doesn’t imply that speakers of harmful speech merely abandon their views. It simply means that their views are left unchallenged, and undisrupted. We argue that this deepens the already inhumane and undignified actions of some people even further.

Contestation is important for democracy

Universities shouldn’t cultivate intolerance towards dissent. Rather they ought to instil in students and lecturers capacities to appreciate divergent views. Universities need to create the conditions and safe spaces for people to cross-over into the unfamiliar and the controversial. The implications at play here are not only in relation to the academic well-being of a university, they also affect our understanding of a democratic society.

The real question is: what kinds of students, and hence society, do universities want to produce? Students need to learn that the relationship between knowledge and power can be emancipatory. Intolerance and exclusion, for example, can only be allayed if people have access to knowledge.

Academic freedom, therefore, is not only about unconstrained speech. It is also about questioning peoples’ worldviews, so that they can consider other ways of thinking, and bring into contestation what’s familiar, known and readily accepted.

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2019-06-27 00:41:53
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