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A Worthy Primer on Free Speech

By Henry Reichman

Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All by Suzanne Nossel. New York: Dey Street Books, 2020.

In recent years conflicts over “free speech” have emerged as central fronts in the ongoing culture wars on campus and in the media. Indeed, one might even speak of a series of “speech wars.” On one side, the Right is charged with attempting to silence advocates of Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, or the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and of promoting harassment of faculty members. On the other, leftists are accused, according to Suzanne Nossel, of “a troubling tendency . . . to sweep aside liberal precepts like press freedom and free speech in the name of other values.”

In the midst of this contention Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, seeks common ground, a task for which she is well qualified. Her organization, which historically represents the speech interests of authors, has recently expanded its purview to engage productively and thoughtfully with campus speech conflicts and debates over social media censorship. In this book she argues persuasively and with nuance that “the fight against bigotry and intolerance need not—and must not—come at the expense of freedom of speech.”

Dare to Speak is structured as a sort of primer. It is divided into four parts, each devoted to elucidating a set of five principles, with a chapter for each. Part 1 presents “Principles for Speakers”; part 2, “Principles for Listening”; part 3, “Principles to Follow When Debating Free Speech Questions”; and part 4, “Principles to Follow in Considering Speech-Related Policies.” Text boxes summarize the main arguments of each chapter. Others pull out key definitions or provide examples of “dos and don'ts.”

Readers familiar with debates over free speech will not find much new in the first two parts, which sometimes veer toward platitude. These chapters should, however, be quite helpful to activists coming fresh to such issues and for those who seek to understand how they may speak and listen more effectively. Nossel recognizes that “free speech shouldn't be condemned on the basis of the worst ideas that can claim its protection.” She does, however, advise those who speak “to be conscientious with language, exercise care in speaking, and be willing to apologize where appropriate.” The advice is well taken, although at points I was concerned that exhortations to civility might fail to recognize, as the AAUP did in its 1994 statement On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes, that “offensive style or opprobrious phrases may in fact have been chosen precisely for their expressive power.”

Campus speech issues and the academic freedom of professors are not the sole or even main focus, but they are discussed. With respect to controversies over campus speakers, Nossel recognizes that public universities, subject to the First Amendment, are in a different situation from private institutions, which “have the legal authority to veto speakers.” In either case, however, she argues that “there needs to be some cognizable rationale as to why a speaker merits a forum on campus.” The book examines several conflicts over classroom use of the N-word “as part of a quote or historic reference.” Nossel sensibly advises that “as stewards of learning professors should be conscious of where a rising generation draws its red lines. Universities should never punish anyone for merely mentioning a word without any inflection of bigotry. Yet individual instructors need not turn their backs on academic freedom to reappraise the pedagogical value of speaking the word in full amid the risk that it will be heard as a slur.”

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book's treatment of campus issues. Nossel repeats the common interpretation of the clash a few years ago at Yale—where students called for the dismissal of a faculty adviser for a residential college, who had dissented against an email from the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee that advised students to use caution in choosing Halloween costumes, lest they inadvertently offend others—as one centered on free speech. She does not mention that the adviser's comments came not in an op-ed or other public forum but in a private email communication limited to dormitory residents and to which those residents could not respond. When students then complained that their “safe space” had been violated, they were arguably referring not to the campus at large but instead to what was essentially their home. Surely, speech confined to a residence differs from that in a public square.

Similarly, Nossel repeats President Barack Obama's criticism of Rutgers University graduates who had protested the proposed appearance of former US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice at a 2014 graduation ceremony. But Nossel, like Obama, does not acknowledge that the protests were not directed against Rice's right to speak but against the award of an honorary degree and the administration's failure to work with a governance committee charged with awarding commencement honors.

The issues treated in parts 3 and 4 are more complex, and the chapters in them may be of greater interest to those who have read more widely on the issues. Unlike those who offer more simplistic defenses of free speech, Nossel acknowledges that speech may indeed cause harm. She identifies and examines three types of harm: injurious, instigating, and intercommunal. Nonetheless she advises that “if speech is treated as violence, it will beget violence.”

For Nossel “the politicization of free speech represents a dangerous trend” as do efforts to caricature the views of either its advocates or its alleged opponents. “While free speech principles sometimes safeguard bigots from certain forms of reprisal,” she writes, “to blame ‘free speech’ for social and racial inequality is a red herring.” At the same time, she argues strenuously for an approach to defending speech that does not reinforce inequalities. “Disparities of wealth, power, background, race, and gender influence who gets to speak when, where, and to whom.” Hence, advocates of free speech must insist on and work for “the eradication of constraints, biases, and inequities that make speech freer for some than [for] others. Discourse is not fully open as long as some groups face heightened obstacles in speaking out.”

The most thought-provoking chapters in part 4 are two that elucidate principles for governing social media and new forms of communication and for regulating media giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. “The struggle to find a suitable method of online content moderation is one of the most important free speech challenges of our time,” Nossel writes. She offers no definitive answer to that challenge but does give reasons to be wary of increased corporate controls on content and reasons to “hold tech platforms accountable for their influence on public discourse.”

A final chapter summarizes “the case for free speech” in five arguments. Taken together, that case “goes above and beyond the rationale for limiting government encroachments on expression. It also implies affirmative steps to make sure all individuals and groups have the means and opportunity to be heard.”

Dare to Speak is a welcome, measured, and admirable addition to the literature on free expression that should be widely read. Its principles complement those enunciated by Timothy Garton Ash in Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, which I previously reviewed in Academe. Nossel’s book would be an excellent choice to assign in a wide variety of classes.

Henry Reichman is chair of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay. His book The Future of Academic Freedom was published in 2019. He is completing Understanding Academic Freedom, a concise guide to the topic that will be available in 2021. His email address is henry.reichman@csueastbay.edu

 

 

 

 

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