Head to Head: Free Speech on Campus

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

In light of recent controversies in UCD’s Lawsoc and TCD’s Historical society, should debating societies prioritise members’ “comfort” over free speech?

For: Michael Tuohy

The Hist, the Trinity College Historical Society, is well within its rights to prioritise the welfare of its members over symbolic 'free speech'. I'd further add that free speech does not mean everyone is owed a platform. The Hist can support individuals having the right to express themselves without owing them a medal and an audience. Particularly when the groups Dawkins targets and belittles are groups that have historically not been well represented in college debating societies. You do not need to write an article to criticise every decision made by a large society. This is not censorship. They can decide to invite and disinvite someone. They are not obliged to give everyone a platform. Something worth noting is that Dawkins was allegedly offered the opportunity to engage in a debate back when this arrangement was originally made, but according to former Hist committee members, he refused. He would only give an unquestioned talk. For everyone saying how The Hist can’t stomach debating ideas it doesn’t agree with, it doesn’t seem that Dawkins can either, not even with students. This makes a lot of sense since his blatantly hateful comments had no reasoning either. I don't consider this to be about left or right-wing views (and in fact, Dawkins identifies as left-leaning) - I consider it to be about offensive, xenophobic views that would ostracise members of society who are already ostracised. I do not consider disinviting a speaker to be an affront to free speech. 

I think when Dawkins has called Islam the greatest force for evil in the world, it probably goes beyond discomfort. There are plenty of speakers of consequence who haven't made incendiary and horrible statements like that and I think it's quite right he not be given a medal and an audience, and that the Hist will still find plenty of thinkers of consequence to invite. Dawkins has continually said he believes Islam and Muslims are a threat to peace and a force for evil. I think that is pretty dehumanising. And he is not a valued expert on Islam, he is an evolutionary biologist. I am almost certain you can find a speaker of value who has managed to not dehumanise a large group of people if you really need to. But if you can't, you can probably weigh-off someone’s contribution to discourse, and Dawkins being famous because he aggressively hates a religion while also an academic doesn't actually cut the mustard. Personally, I would rather all the students who might have been ostracised and put off by his invitation feel free to engage with The Hist than Richard Dawkins get to address what would likely end up being an echo chamber of students who support him unequivocally.

In terms of the issues around the UCD LawSoc comedy debate over who’s better, Culchies or Dubs, it applies almost equally to what’s happening with Dawkins. There are major issues within UCD and especially in notably more middle to upper class membered societies like LawSoc, of casual classism and racism. These have gone on for years with everyone’s knowledge, with little to no fightback against it. When there were barbs thrown at them for it, these would be met with sneers, saying that people had no humour, that it was just a joke. But when you’re already a marginalised person in society, or when you’re already clearly being looked down upon for the colour of your skin, your accent, how you choose to act or dress, then these “jokes” just aren’t funny. They’re unnecessarily mean-spirited. The advertisement LawSoc put up on their Instagram never actually said anything that could be in any way construed as offensive to Dubs. It was horribly weighted, a chance for more privileged people to pile on the backs of people who already have a tough enough time in this country trying to do anything. That’s why there was such pushback, and all of that pushback was wholly warranted. 

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and everyone is entitled to make a joke. The context of those opinions and jokes, and the after-effects of those opinions and jokes, need to be paid attention to. If you’re just going out of your way to be mean-spirited, then what’s the point? What does society gain from having a point of view that spouts hatred and violence? Absolutely nothing. So why let anyone have access to that point of view? It’s fine to have it as a tool to learn that “this isn’t the right way to go about this stuff” but we have major issues if people start agreeing with these messages. So kill these messages off. What use do we have for them?

 Against: Nathan Young

The perennial issue of free speech may seem tiresome, especially when viewed in the context of another two debating society controversies. Old hat it may be, but what only makes it all the more irritating is that serious analysis is lacking. While the exact details of each controversy matter, they matter less than the overall question of whether free speech is a worthy principle, and if it is, whether student societies are bastions of it.

The Dubs vs Culchies debate hosted online by the UCD Law Society (LawSoc) was clearly designed to assign the majority of students into one of two tribes and ask them to make cheap jokes at each other’s expense. This year it has been called classist by bored people online, apparently forgetting that Dublin has a large working-class population and that many of our most corrupt and scummy business owners and wealthy people live outside the pale.

As for the slightly more meaningful controversy around Professor Richard Dawkins, there are a few points that need addressing. For those unaware, Dawkins was recently disinvited from a speaking gig for the College Historical Society (Hist) in Trinity. First off, it is laughable to claim to have not been aware of Dawkins views on Islam, as the Professor is most famous in popular culture for his critiques of religion and the religious. Granted, the cited views on sexual assault presumably refer to his stupid “Dear Muslims” blogpost, which most people who weren’t big into new atheism in 2011 are not aware of. Nasty and insensitive as this blog post may have been, it wasn’t an expression of support for assault as is implied.

These details don’t matter much, however, as the reason for the revoked invite is not that Dawkins words would lead to harm, but that his speaking at the event would be at odds with “the comfort of [the Hist’s] membership”. Hist auditor Bríd O’Donnell has also pointed out that it was the previous committee and not her who chose to invite the Professor. This does little to change the circumstances of the disinvitation, save to justify her claim of ignorance of Dawkins’ views. That O’Donnell rescinded an invitation on the basis of members’ comfort remains.

There is a difficult question as to how organisations and media outlets choose who to give voice to. It is clearly the case that not all opinions need nor deserve an airing on all platforms. Besides, even if one were to believe in a Milsean view of free speech, it is simply impossible to allow all views on all subjects the same platforms. It is further the case that university debating societies are neither the largest nor most culturally impactful of forums. That being said, the claim that disinviting people for their views is not a form of censorship is ridiculous. The difference between a rescinded invite and one never sent is that the former declares publicly that the speaker’s views are disallowed; the latter declares nothing.

There is not enough space on any newspaper page to write all the reasons that free speech is a worthy principle, but consider that the social and scientific progress of the past few hundred years required breaking with orthodoxy for the sake of reason and free inquiry. The enlightenment may be too oft mythologist in the liberal mind, but everything from medical dissections to queer liberation are only possible due to taboos being thwarted.

Dawkins, of course, will be able to express his views elsewhere. Far from this showing that there is no censorship, it shows that the censorship has failed. It confirmed every stereotype about students being overly sensitive. David Quinn got the opportunity once more to declare students overly sensitive on Today FM. The lessons of Nigel Farage’s infamous invitation and disinvitation, where the withdrawal of a platform made one of the most well-known bigots in Europe appear to be a martyr, were not learned.

Meanwhile, as students on the left declare that they care not for free speech, and debating society guests remain the only public battleground for these conversations, academics in the US who support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement remain the single largest cohort denied academic freedom. UCD proposed changing its academic freedom policy document to appease the Chinese government, and Ireland’s libel laws make journalism aimed at rich and powerful people a dangerous game. It sure would be nice to have a principled position to fight these threats from.

REBUTTAL to AGAINST: Michael Tuohy

Firstly, my opponent really glosses over the issues relating to the LawSoc debate. Painting Dublin as purely a haven for the well off, while not recognising the majority working-class population, and directly insulting anyone from outside of Dublin while just saying “Haha, Dubs like expensive coffee” is an inherently classist outlook, and it comes from a society who are well known for being inherently classist. We can’t just let people away with that behaviour when they have a history of it already. Classism is meaningful, especially in the Ireland we live in today, and it doesn’t deserve to be glossed over. 

In relation to their comments about Richard Dawkins, Freedom of Speech does not mean Freedom from Consequences. It’s very likely the Hist Auditor didn’t know of Dawkins’ views on Islam before they were brought to them, and once brought up, they had every right to rescind the invitation. Dawkins can spout whatever hateful rhetoric he wants in a million places across the globe. Having him in and allowing him to talk about his horrible views would have given more credence to them than completely shutting it out. The Right don’t and haven’t listened to any left-wing politician or thinker in years. So why should we try and engage with that side when they won’t give an inch to us? 

REBUTTAL to FOR:  Nathan  Young

It would truly be lovely to be able to discuss free speech and censorship without the advocate for the latter claiming they favour the former. To say that one supports free speech except if it's offensive or harmful is to say one is in fact in favour of censorship.

That The Hist reserve the right to disinvite speakers is not in question. Again, the difference between not inviting a speaker, and inviting one and then disinviting them, while citing comfort of members, is the difference between choosing what activities best suit The Hist and publicly announcing support for censorship.

As for the Culchies vs Dubs debate being a genuine affront to good taste, I again say that class is not measured by proximity to cattle, and that the comparisons with racism and bigotry are a tad extreme. The most offensive part of LawSoc’s advertising is that the jokes employed are tired.

The concept of killing a message off is interesting. When Nigel Farrage was disinvited from The Hist, his message was hardly killed off in Ireland. Instead, he appeared martyred. From German Federal Law to American campus rules, censorship regimes that have ever had any efficacy against bigoted views have always been more effective in rooting out communist sympathisers or woke liberals. If a weapon truly capable of killing a message exists, your enemies will find it, and use it.