Teaching ‘freedom of speech’ freely
in The free speech wars
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Despite being on the teaching front line, academics are commonly excluded from debates concerning the supposed ‘free speech’ crisis on campuses. This chapter offers an academic perspective, arguing that the increasingly common perception of students as sensitive or censorious is not borne out in the classroom. This chapter is particularly inspired by experiences over the past five years in teaching on literary censorship, offence and ‘freedom of speech’ in literature from the seventeenth century to the present day. Following this anecdotal experience, this chapter turns to argue that much of the furore concerning free speech on university campuses comes from a position of bad faith; to insist, as many commentators do, that no topic should be off-limits, is commonly not applied to the very concept of ‘freedom of speech’ itself, despite its loose definition and weighty cultural baggage. In addition, it argues that freedom of speech, like all ‘freedoms’, involves being freed from things as much as it involves being left free to do them. This has important teaching implications. To encourage the ‘freest’ speech in the classroom is to discourage monopoly of conversation; this requires a respectful, diverse environment. It concludes that the weaponisation of ‘free speech’ commonly undermines itself as it is demonstrably more concerned with the preservation of the voices of particularly privileged groups than in encouraging plurality of opinion.

The free speech wars

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