Skip to main content

Amy Lai is a lawyer and author of The Right to Parody and a book on free speech in higher education under contract with the University of Michigan Press.

Over the past few years, various speakers have had engagements cancelled on university campuses in an effort to silence their unpopular views. Known as deplatforming, this is mostly championed by university administrators, academics and students. At other times, even people outside of the university participate in such campaigns.

This is upsetting, considering that freedom of speech has long been held as a fundamental right in the Western world. The view that free speech enables a “marketplace of ideas,” often used with reference to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, has its roots in a number of earlier works. For example, Enlightenment philosopher John Locke contended that freedom of conscience is an inalienable right in all humans, which, when guided by reason, enables them to resist state coercion and pursue the truth. Free speech is essential not only to the pursuit of truth but also to democratic governance. Twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls considered free speech to be one of the basic liberties that enables citizens to participate in the lawmaking in a democracy. For moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, it is congenial to the self-development of individuals as much as it is important for a functional society.

Although the stated functions of free speech are all related, the pursuit of truth is arguably the most important in higher education. Universities are places where different ideas are presented and debated, and where bad ideas are filtered out and good ones are valued. It is for this purpose that speakers believed to deliver valuable ideas are invited to campuses. Provided that their talks do not constitute hate speech or harassment, are conducted respectfully and include free-flowing question-and-answer sessions, a marketplace of ideas benefiting both speakers and listeners would be facilitated. Strongly held ideas need not be given up; they are tested, held to scrutiny and in many cases refined. The internet further enables dialogue initiated by high-profile speakers to reach a wide audience and to continue long after the talks have ended.

Those who seek to deplatform speakers seldom deny the importance of freedom of speech. Rather, they argue that freedom of speech does not entitle people to a platform to spread their ill-informed opinions. They also frequently accuse universities or organizing departments of endorsing the views of controversial speakers whom they invite. Yet, extending invitations to speakers is not tacit endorsement of their opinions; it only confirms that the topics addressed are up for debate.

In a democratic society, virtually no issue is too controversial for discussion, particularly in an academic setting. In addition, when a speaker agrees to speak on a campus, a formal agreement is reached between the speaker and the host. Instead of forcing a breach of contract and finding a substitute who may or may not offer more value, wouldn’t time and effort be better spent on making the arranged event as informative and educational as possible? Those who object to the speaker’s views should not shy away from a learning opportunity and then complain after the talk. They should engage the guest, challenge them, even call them out if necessary. Who knows – perhaps the most stubborn speaker would learn from the exchanges and temper their views.

Those who are pro-deplatforming frequently express outrage at how freedom of speech is “co-opted” to express ideas contrary to the orthodoxies, often by what they call right-wingers or “neo-Nazis” (the latter in many cases may be borderline defamatory). In the classroom, one is encouraged to play the devil’s advocate to enrich and enliven debates. Likewise, should an environment be dominated by a single or limited range of narratives, introducing diverse, alternate perspectives is healthy. People with different beliefs seeking to "de-marginalize” their views and making their voices heard whenever opportunities arise is also understandable. Arguably, in an open forum, the content and substance of the ideas, and their potential to contribute to debates on important issues, matter far more than the speakers’ political affiliations or the affiliations of those inviting them.

While de-platforming speakers deprives them the opportunities to speak and the attendees the opportunities to learn, concerns and protests over controversial speakers, be they informed or not, are totally expected and should even be encouraged. Provided that these protests are peaceful and non-disruptive, their messages may serve as valuable input into the marketplace of ideas.

Some members of academic communities contend that violent, even illegal measures, for example, pulling fire alarms, to disrupt talks by speakers with “harmful” opinions are preferable to giving them a platform to spread their ideas. In other words, diverting resources from real emergencies would be acceptable in order to shut down offensive expressions that are not hate speech and that can present valuable educational opportunities. This is only one step from advocating for illegal behaviour.

That this view – both intellectually vacuous and morally reprehensible – is embraced even among the educated is unfortunate and a testimony to how misguided some members of our society are.