The dangers of muzzling free speech

Independence Hall in Philadelphia (Emma Lee/WHYY

Independence Hall in Philadelphia (Emma Lee/WHYY

If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. —George Orwell

The 17th century Italian astronomer Galileo showed that the earth moves around the sun rather than the sun moving around the earth. This flew in the face of religious teachings on the subject, with the result that Galileo faced an inquisition and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life.

That’s not exactly the way contrarian views are treated in today’s academia; but there is a troubling move towards suppressing free speech and ideas. Maybe this is because universities now employ more administrators than faculty — the people who dream up ways to muzzle perceived insult or offense.

Among those who would challenge such muzzling is the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. In fact, the organization gives its annual Muzzle awards to organizations that have been seen to undermine freedom of speech. The award categories are: censorship of students, censorship by students, efforts to limit press access on campus, threats to academic freedom, and silencing of outside speakers.

In 2016, there were 50 recipients, all of them colleges. “Never,” said a spokesman for the organization, “have we observed, in our 25 years of awarding the Jefferson muzzles, such an alarming concentration of anti-speech activity as we saw on college campuses across the country.” Among the awards:  St. John Fisher College for  disinviting Rudolph Giuliani;  and LeMoyne College for banning cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Colleges have  blocked such well-known speakers as Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde and Ayaan Hirsi Ali because their views fail to coincide with perceived wisdom — the generally left-leaning wisdom of academia.

This form of censorship reached an extreme in 1989 when Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa — a death threat — against the Anglo-Indian author Sir Salman Rushdie for its perceived anti-Islam sentiments in his book “The Satanic Verses.” And the move toward punishing free speech reached a similar apex in such horrors as the slaying of the 12 French cartoonists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo who lampooned Islam. And curiously, several European countries have laws that forbid written or spoken insults leveled at their heads of government.

But the campus is surely the most consistently fertile ground for verbal authoritarianism. And the seeds for it are today’s parents who go to ridiculous lengths to eliminate all risk from their children’s lives. A professor writing in The Spectator last year advocated a ban on tackling in school rugby matches because of the perils of this “high-impact collision sport.” And the same might be said for the new bugbear of bullying, the publication reports, which has now been expanded to include teasing and name-calling, spreading rumors, homophobic taunting and exclusion from friendship groups. It must be said, though, that while much of this might have been considered ‘normal’ a few decades ago, the advent of social media has made some of these expanded definitions quite threatening.

But entertainers, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher, have condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke. So-called trigger warnings alert  students to such “dangerous” works as Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which supposedly promotes suicidal inclinations.

Among the most mischievous of muzzlers is surely the 18th-century physician Thomas Bowdler who decided to expunge from the works of Shakespeare anything that might corrupt the minds of children. So for example in Macbeth “out damn spot” was replaced by “out crimson spot.” The word “God” is replaced by the word “heavens.” And in “Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio’s word “prick,” as in “the prick of noon,” makes way for “the point of noon.”

Bowdler gained a measure of immortality. Today Bowdlerism — the expurgation of language perceived to be crude or offensive — is alive and well in academia.

A Philadelphia-based organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has as its mission “to defend and sustain individual rights at American colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.”

FIRE believes that freedom of speech is under continuous threat at many of America’s campuses. And that administrative attempts to punish or repress speech on a case-by-case basis are common in today’s academia.  Surely we should be teaching students not what to think but how to think.

The reductio ad absurdum in all of this is the story of Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. Oblomov was a fictional Russian character who believed that if he stayed in bed all day, every day no harm will befall him. And he was right: Oblomov died of natural causes — in bed.

Is this the kind of  cocooning we want for our students?

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