John Stuart Mill argued, among other things, that it is crucial to disavow censorship because the suppression of free speech leads to the truncation of thought. Still, many years after 1859, “On Liberty” offers lessons on free speech worth relearning. The uptick in no-platforming across universities is the case in point.
No-platforming—the practice of preventing an invited speaker, through policy or protest, from discussing their ideas at a particular event–is becoming more and more common at universities across the United Kingdom and the United States.
Without any irony intended, proponents of no-platforming do not like to debate its premises.
The idea behind no-platforming is that enabling public discussion of certain ideas threatens the safety of minority groups, which is the catalyst for evil deeds. The intention is sound, as is the intended consequence. It is true that the larger masses have often dominated the legitimate rights of minorities. It is true that universities must balance the cultivation of civility and community with the quest for truth. It is also true that feelings will be hurt in discussion of issues people hold dear.
Yet, if universities self-promote as bastions of free thought and intend to minimize harm against minority groups, suppressing public discourse contradicts both aims. This idealized intention and consequence–where only the most vile of society are targets of no-platforming–does not align with what actually happens. It is easy to think that the speakers whose ideas are too radical to be spoken are literal terrorists, murderers, and woman-beaters–people who threaten the virtues that enable the highest expression of human potential. This line of thinking does not consider the hodgepodge of people who do and do not get no-platformed.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of homosexuality and certain human rights, and CEO President Roger Clegg’s dismissal of the Charleston Confederate Flag controversy did not prevent them from giving talks at Columbia and University of Wisconsin respectively. But, preeminent economists Charles Murray and Lawrence Summers had their invitations at Azusa Pacific University and UCLA formally rescinded. Both Murray and Summers have incredible careers and have more than proven their devotion to good scholarship.
The history of free speech on college campuses runs counter to campus climate nowadays. Universities have historically been bastions of free speech. John Stuart Mill’s own words objecting censorship give proper context to this monumental shift in campus politics:
Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority. (11)
Proponents of no-platforming argue that it protects minority groups from harm. Given that universities have been defenders of minority beliefs, you would think it would follow that they would uphold minority rights through a focus on university policies’ effects not solely through their intentions.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, no-platforming is the harm. The minority-protection argument forgets that an invitation to speak at a university is, by itself, already a screening process. People who receive speaking invitations are usually exceptional in one way or another. This argument also stops short of telling the full story. People at the receiving end of no-platforming are often women. As of late, the targets of no-platforming are frequently women speaking about their own life experiences under Islam.
For instance, after a series of online petitions and protests, the courts of public opinion deemed the ideas of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maryam Namazie, and Nonie Darwish unspeakable. Brandeis University, citing Ali’s “hate speech” against Islam, announced its cancellation of her honorary degree and rescinded her speaking invitation. Warwick University rescinded Namazie’s invite claiming that her speech would have violated, among other things, the policy to “not spread hatred and intolerance in the community.” Georgetown students labelled Darwish “a bigot”, attempted to coerce administrators to rescind her invite, and called her criticism of Islam “hate speech.”
Ali grew up under Islam in Somalia, was a victim of female genital mutilation, escaped Somalia through a refugee program, then settled in Massachusetts–all of this after serving as a member of the Dutch parliament.
There is a dearth of specificity and lack of rigor in the writing of these women’ opponents. This suggests that these women’ missteps were not in the error of their arguments but in their departure from a preordained script. The question of how these women retelling their own experiences growing up as girls and women under Islam qualifies as hate speech remains.
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. (9)
How young people are to decide which controversial ideas are good, bad, or neither in these circumstances is another unanswered question. No-platforming stifles the intellectual development of our young people while insulting their intelligence. This is a double whammy. University faculty’s complicity in no-platforming makes some implicit assumptions. The action manages to simultaneously assume that students do not have the ability to interrogate foreign ideas and have no potential to develop this ability. For this to happen at a university campus is contradicts the goals of a university education.
In addition, no-platforming obstructs the rigorous, logical examination of unfamiliar and foreign ideas. Mill makes the case that an idea’s value exists beyond its originator, so censorship inflicts harms on those other than the silencer and the silenced.
Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (31)
Mill argues that censoring truth denies others the chance to update false beliefs, and censuring falsehood deprives people the opportunity to clarify the nuances of the truth.
Of course, Mill’s vindication does not guarantee some administrative or student-level self-reflection. However, it is does impress upon us that Mill’s support of free speech has stood the test of time.