By James Compton
“All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Fellow science fiction lovers will recognize this quote taken from the early-2000s reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Without going too far down the Sci-Fi rabbit hole, the line suggested that the phantasmagoric events depicted in the series were part of some larger cycle of time in which past and future were merged. A form of déjà vu.
Historians are keenly aware of how social tensions and themes recede for a time, only to reoccur. Such is the case involving recent controversies on campuses concerning clashes over academic freedom. On the one hand, we witness advocates claiming the need to restrict expression that may be hurtful, offensive or intolerant to foster safe and harassment free learning environments. While on the other hand we have defenders of controversial speech who take a more absolutist, or libertarian, position — sometimes deriding “illiberal leftists” for being unable to tolerate uncomfortable ideas. All this has happened before. But I would like to suggest it doesn’t need to happen again.
Following the work of Henry Louis Gates Jr., I believe that current debates rest on a false dichotomy that pits the social good of inclusion against academic freedom. In 1996, Gates wrote an essay for The Future of Academic Freedom, in which he critically surveyed literature from the 1980s and early 90s calling for campus speech codes.
A central tenet of the argument for restrictive speech codes, says Gates, is “that racial insults are profoundly political, part of a larger mechanism of social subordination” in which the consequences of hurtful speech is equated to the harm done by physical assault. Finally, speech codes are justified by challenging the neutral application of principles of law. Proponents insist on a “contextual/historical analysis of the law” that considers the power imbalances of “historically oppressed” groups. Neutral rules, so the argument goes, are used against marginalized groups. One example cited is how anti-mask statutes have been used to target Muslim women wearing veils. Summarizing arguments, he writes: “Maybe, these critics conclude, it’s time to give up the pursuit of abstract principles and defend victims against victimizers, achieving results in the here-and-now, not the sweet hereafter.”
We can certainly support the sentiment, in that there is virtually no lobby in support of victimizers, and I wholeheartedly endorse the call to historical analysis. As Gates points out, historical analysis “is not a bad principle. But what it suggests … is that we get down to cases and consider … the actual
results of various regimes of hate speech regulation.” If we do that what do we learn? We learn that often, ironically, the first casualties of restrictive speech regulations are minority or marginalized groups, as was the case in the early 90s when Toronto police raided a gay and lesbian bookstore to enforce anti-obscenity laws because of a magazine it carried. Gates tells us that similar results followed in 1988 when the University of Michigan established its speech code, which was later rescinded by a court decision. During the year it “was enforced, more than twenty blacks were charged — by whites — with racist speech … not a single instance of white racist speech was punished.”
Advocates for speech restrictions and respectful workplace codes make a huge assumption: that authorities and institutions charged with policing speech will side with them. But as Dalhousie University student Masuma Khan learned, that is not a reliable position. The university’s Student Code of Conduct was invoked to launch an investigation into Khan after she used foul language on social media to defend her group’s decision not to participate in or endorse the Canada 150 celebrations.
What really perplexed Gates was how the history of the American civil rights movement was turned on its head. “The struggle with racism,” he wrote, “has traditionally been waged through language, not against it; the tumult of the civil rights era was sponsored by an expansive vision of the First Amendment, a vision to which the struggle against racism in turn lent its moral prestige.”
Academic freedom can lead to lawful speech that some may view as offensive, but what is clear is that it has also helped foster academic disciplines formerly excluded from the academy. A strong case is to be made that women’s studies, critical race studies and anti-colonial studies would not exist in the academy without it.