Queen Beatrix defends free speech

The discussion of what the Statement of Academic Freedom means, of what it means to cover and what (if anything) it doesn’t mean to cover, goes on in comments, so I wanted to add a point or two.

The trouble is that it’s rather carefully worded in such a way that it’s hard to figure out exactly what it does and doesn’t cover. ‘[A]cademics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive’ and ‘academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff’. What is ‘received wisdom’ and what are ‘opinions’? Would it be an exercise in questioning received wisdom and putting forward controversial opinions for a lecturer in history to teach students that slavery in the US was a voluntary arrangement between ambitious Africans with a longing to travel and see the world, and a set of generous slave traders and plantation owners who wanted to help them achieve their dreams? Would it be an exercise in questioning received wisdom and putting forward controversial opinions for such a lecturer to teach students that Henry VIII defeated the Vikings at Culloden in 608 and that his daughter Victoria had him beheaded and ascended to the throne along with her consort Isambard Kingdom Brunel? In other words, is the statement about opinions as distinct from empirical claims, or does it cover any and all claims of any kind, with or without evidence?

A related but not identical question is, what of teachers who spend a lot of class time on subjects that are slightly or not at all related to the subject matter? That’s another fuzzy area, obviously – teachers of history, literature, politics, and the like often have very good reasons for talking about a range of subjects. And no one, but no one, wants David Horowitz or a Florida legislator whose previous job was selling insurance or even a university administrator with excellent sense and intentions, sitting in on classes and barking ‘Too far off topic!’ at intervals. But what of teachers like the high school history teacher in New Jersey who regaled his lucky students with his born-again religious views instead of teaching his subject, which was (ironically) Constitutional law? Is that his job? Is that what the students need or want to know? If students sign up for a class in algebra and get pastry cooking instead, isn’t that a problem? But the Statement of Academic Freedom doesn’t seem to rule that out.

Boringly enough, this is at least as much a matter of practicality and the finiteness of time as it is one of principle. It’s often not so much a question of the right to offer and hear unpopular opinions as it is of the fact that there are X hours of classes and Y amount of material to cover. This comes up in arguments over ID in science classes with dreary regularity. Proponents of ID say teach the conflict, let students decide, expose them to more than one theory, what could be fairer than that. Opponents say, among other things, look, this is biology class, there is a lot to cover and not enough time to cover it, there isn’t room for philosophy or religion too (especially not bad philosophy, but that’s one of the other things they say).

And then there is the falsification of evidence issue, and the fact that falsification of evidence is not automatically obvious or detectable even by experts, let alone by students. Suppose a historian of science who assigns a class a book or article that claims Einstein’s wife played a major role in his early work, and assigned no other material on the subject at all. That historian of science might have an ‘opinion’ that Mileva Maric did indeed play such a role. Does that mean (in the terms of the Statement of Academic Freedom) that the academic institution that employs the historian of science has no right to curb the exercise of this freedom to put forward a controversial opinion on an empirical matter? The statement doesn’t make that clear.

On the other hand! Just to try to be clear myself – I couldn’t agree more with the ‘whether or not these are deemed offensive’ part. Especially in the wake of the hilarious item I heard on Radio Netherlands a couple of days ago about Queen Beatrix’s Christmas speech. She talked about the importance of free speech, the reporter informed us, and also said that of course no one has the right to insult anyone. I collapsed in laughter, then threw some chairs around the room. Well done, Queen! Free speech great, important, wonderful, special, gotta have it, good stuff, hooray for free speech, thank your stars you have it, but of course you have no right to insult anyone. Such as, we all now understand, by drawing cartoons of their prophets. So, good news, you can have it, except that you can’t. Hooray for free speech, but don’t say anything with it. Free speech rocks, but shut up. Oookay.

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