Academic freedom and freedom of speech: Do they protect hateful and offensive speech? Are human rights up for debate?

My name is Matthew Brown, I am a student of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. I have been following the activity of Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom (EdAFAF) who I would like to thank for giving me the opportunity to contribute to their blog.

I was not in attendance at the aborted screening of the film Adult Human Female, though I have been told that a small number of protestors occupied the planned lecture theatre and prevented entry to the contingency venue at the Old College. The reason being, the protestors considered the content of the movie to be transphobic and harmful in that it denies the rights and existence of trans people, which it is argued that academic freedom and freedom of speech do not protect.

This article is not about the ‘trans v gender critical’ debate per se, though I do have an opinion which I will make reference to shortly. What I do want to talk about is a couple of points that were raised on academic freedom and freedom of speech in a journalistic dialogue between The Spectator’s James Kirkup and the University of Edinburgh’s Student newspaper’s editor Lucy Jackson.

This interaction was over why Lucy Jackson chose not to publish any articles on the screening and the related protests and yet chose to publish about an event organised in defiance of the screening. Kirkup, bewildered but somewhat sympathetic at the budding journalists decisions to deprive her audience of making up their own mind, invites Jackson to write a piece to explain her decision as editor not to broach the topic. Jackson took up the offer and defended her position arguing that to have done so would legitimise the film’s questionable claims and reporting the story may have caused harm to others which she felt she had a duty to avoid.

The editor of The Student supports her concern about harm by claiming that the line of thinking expressed in the film “vilifies and dehumanises trans people. It also encourages the perception of trans people as a threat, inciting the risk of violence against them.” Jackson goes on to imply that there is no such thing as a ‘trans debate’, that this is a non-issue where giving it a platform can do nothing other than bring harm to a community already marginalised. In short, she stands by her decision. Which is fair enough, she is journalistically, academically, and generally free to do so.

What was of particular interest to me were two claims: that allowing such a movie to be shown on campus “falsely implies that the rights of trans people are up for debate” and that “Hate speech is not protected speech”. Taking the second claim first: speech can certainly be hateful and offensive, but there is no right not to be offended. I would go as far to say that we need speech to be offensive sometimes – more on this shortly. Jackson is evidently appalled by the movie Adult Human Female and finds it and the views it expresses repugnant. Her assessment of the film could be perceived as hate speech against the producers and EdAFAF who tried to screen it; and she has every right to express these views. Though it seems that she is not willing to extend this right to others with whom she disagrees. By extension of her own logic that “freedom of expression is not freedom from accountability”, is she prepared to be held accountable for this offence? I do not think she should be held accountable because I believe that hate speech ought to be protected speech. Moreover, it is crucially more important that hate speech is protected than regular run of the mill speech. Nobody cares about everyday speech; it upsets hardly anybody.

The speech we need to be free to say is precisely the speech that others might find offensive and hateful. When you speak truth to power or you call out a tyrant, they are going to find your speech hateful and offensive; but if we are to ever free ourselves from tyranny – something that Lucy Jackson clearly concerns herself with, then it is precisely the speech that might offend that we need the freedom to express. I find the idea that it dehumanises trans people to express concern about the degradation of the rights and wellbeing of women ridiculous and offensive. I find it ridiculous because, to me, the idea that as a man it is your right to impose yourself upon the spaces set aside for women and young girls, and that this is not up for debate, prevents us from being able to think and talk about it. Which would provide us with the possibility of moving toward a resolution where we find the balance between making allowances for people and respecting the right to privacy and safety that women have fought long and hard for.

Again, should the protestors be held accountable for my offense at their insolence and claims about harm? No! Should Lucy Jackson be held accountable for expressing the idea that hate speech is not protected speech; an idea I find offensive as I believe it would violate the human right of free speech if acted upon? No! She has merely defended the validity of this in her eyes and chosen not to write about the opposing views in her paper. I get to decide not to read her paper and to speak truth to her power as editor, which she may find offensive and hateful, she may not. She then, if she wishes, gets to engage me in conversation, to speak truth to me or ignore what I have written. This conversation could not take place if hate speech were not protected speech. Interestingly, this is not the approach taken by the Scottish Hate Crime and Public Order Act (2021) which considers being merely insulting an offence of stirring up hatred. Whatever happened to freedom loving Scots?

Following from this I turn to Jackson’s first claim, that the rights of trans people are not up for debate, and how this seems to go against her own argument. Jackson has put forward that academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the values many of us think they are, that a woman’s right to privacy and safety is trumped by a man’s right to wish to violate those, it seems very much that human rights can be up for debate; this is a position many disagree with. Shouldn’t they be up for debate? How did we arrive at the rights we recognise today without debating their existence and arguing for their recognition? It is possible that our articulations of the rights we have might be imperfect and in need of updating. Is this not what the trans debate is about? ‘Trans rights are human rights’ is the slogan stuck to nearly every lamp post in Edinburgh. They have to be up for debate, otherwise how else can we talk about them? How have the trans activists landed on their certainty of what they take ‘trans rights’ to be without having the right and freedom to debate and discuss them?

So, to the proposition that these things are not up for debate, I would recommend reconsidering because arguing that certain things aren’t up for debate and there should be no place on a university campus to do so, is probably going to backfire. It’s not smart to give those who might wish to prevent you from speaking the rhetorical and argumentative framework to use against you. And finally, to the proposition that hateful and offensive speech is not protected by free speech or academic freedom, neither I nor anybody else has a right not to be offended which then trumps someone else’s right to freedom of expression.

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