Defending speech

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
3 May, 2024

History often helps put current controversies in context.

In 1968, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Ira Glasser defended racist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s right to speak at a city-owned stadium in New York. It most certainly was not because he agreed with Wallace.

Indeed, Glasser later said, “there was, at that time, no one whose speech I despised more than Wallace’s.”

But letting New York stifle Wallace would mean cities in Alabama could silence civil rights activists.

Glasser went on to head the ACLU. Objecting to his inclusion in a panel discussion on free speech because of his “support” for Wallace would have been absurd.

Had students been sufficiently misguided to make such an objection, it would have been embarrassing for the university. The university would obviously have failed to provide a fundamental element of liberal education.

Last week, student groups at Victoria University of Wellington objected to Jonathan Ayling’s presence at an upcoming University free-speech panel discussion – because Ayling’s Free Speech Union has defended speech that many find repugnant.

Student Association President Parkinson said students “freaked out” on seeing a panel lineup that included purportedly “right wing voices” like Ayling and the Initiative’s Dr Michael Johnston (formerly Victoria University Associate Dean of Education).

The University postponed and restructured the event. A panel of advocates will be followed by a panel of academics. In both cases, participant(s) favouring free speech will be balanced by others with, shall we say, more nuanced views. Ayling will participate in the first panel and Johnston in the second.

Universities are meant to be places where students encounter challenging ideas rather than affirmations of their pre-existing beliefs.

It is easy to assume that one’s intellectual opponents have only weak arguments if you only ever hear those arguments portrayed by uncharitable critics. Hearing the best arguments in favour of views you oppose helps to test your own thinking. It can even change your mind – whether about your own views, or about your opponents’ rigour.

Being unable to distinguish principled support for freedom of speech from support for the content of that speech seems a serious intellectual failing. And it would take remarkable ignorance of the spectrum of political beliefs to consider Michael Johnston a beyond-the-pale right-winger.

Universities should remedy youthful ignorance rather than cater to it.

It is good that the discussion will go ahead. But perhaps Ira Glasser’s work should form part of universities’ first year core curriculum.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates