The Ironic Interplay of Free Speech and Silencing: Does Workplace Bullying Compromise Free Speech in Higher Education?

By Leah P. Hollis


Free speech is one of the cornerstones of higher education. Professors and other knowledge workers should have the freedom to speak reasonably and collegially about a wide range of topics, even if their ideas are controversial or unpopular. However, just like any other tool, if misused, free speech can have results very different from those intended, restricting speech by silencing others. Workplace bullying, harassment, and hostile speech chill the environment and motivate those facing abuse to withhold valuable contributions. Stating that bullying and coercing others is one’s right as free speech is an excuse to sidestep the actions of the bully, instead of addressing the impact of bullying on the educational environment. This essay explores the right to free speech and its interplay with aggressive bullying speech. The discussion also reflects on how abusive free speech, whether in person or in cyberspace, hurts the academic environment and suppresses the expression of those it is meant to support.

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There is no free speech for those that have been bullied, especially if they have been silenced by non disclosure agreements.
This is not just in the education system, but also in all aspects in government and corporate business areas.

"Cultural diversity" includes across generations as well as social classes defined by incomes, skin color, dialect, etc. It is not uncommon for older faculty, especially retired but still active people, to be excluded from campus discussions, colloquia, participation in classes, and speaking with students. In my case, as a retired professor and one with much more broad research experience than younger anthropologists are likely to have had, I have been explicitly forbidden to speak with students, not acknowledged when I raised my hand in discussion after public lectures, told I should not "disrupt" by asking questions or making comments at such occasions, and in instance, physically pushed down as I attempted to make a comment (and on this occasion, I was by far the most experienced and well published scholar on the topic in the room). The present crisis in jobs in academia for anyone not in STEM fields, and the push to put courses online instead of maintaining faculty, produces a very tense, paranoiac atmosphere where faculty desperately attempt to be seen as "important" and silence by bullying, scholars with divergent experience and interpretations.

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