Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Continuing my thoughts on "decorum", and inspired by an oldish conversation on the Agenda, a simple argument against efforts to prevent speakers from speaking on campus just occurred to me. It is sometimes said that your right to free speech does not guarantee you a platform to express your views. When scheduled events are cancelled or interrupted, it is said, these are merely "consequences" of free speech, not the prevention of free speech. I don't think that argument works, or perhaps it is simply trumped by another line of thinking, which has to do with protecting the right to peaceful assembly.

Consider the following situation. A university professor invites a controversial intellectual to come by his office for an exchange of ideas. The guest arrives, they close the door, and the conversation begins. I think we can all agree that some sort of right would be violated if a student group physically prevented this meeting from happening. Now, let's suppose that the professor shares some of the ideas that were discussed in the meeting with colleagues and these colleagues are sufficiently intrigued to suggest that the intellectual be invited back for department seminar. Faculty and graduate students in the department are invited to attend, and those who are interested in fact show up. Again, I think we would agree that there's nothing admirable in a student group that attempts to either have the seminar cancelled by some higher authority or, that failing, undertakes to prevent the seminar from happening on the day, by blocking entrances, or storming the room.

Now that our controversialist's ideas are becoming more familiar around the department, let's suppose that one or more of the faculty invite him as a guest speaker into their classes. Again, I think we would agree that preventing this class from happening would be a violation of the teacher's academic freedom. (Keep in mind that if the content is actually inappropriate to the course, the teacher can be held accountable in other ways.) The teacher would, moreover, have the authority to moderate the discussion, i.e., to make an agenda and keep order—a thirty minute talk, followed by a Q&A for example. Students who don't observe the usual classroom decorum would, of course, be asked to leave, backed up by a threat of disciplinary action. (Here we can also talk about "free speech with consequences," I suppose.) Likewise, if a student group unrelated to the class were to protest or disrupt the class, this would, I think we can agree, be deemed entirely unacceptable. Students on a university campus must respect the classes of their fellow students, again on pain of disciplinary action.

Now, let's suppose that some of the students who were present at the guest lecture get interested enough in the controversial ideas to invite the intellectual to speak to their campus club. The leadership of the club determines that this would be of broad interest to the student body, and a good opportunity to promote their club. They book a suitable auditorium, and promote the event with posters. My question now is whether this opportunity for free speech and assembly is any way different than the previous ones. I don't think it is. The inviting club and the speaker have the right to hold an event structured as they please. If they want a 45 minute lecture, followed by an invited response or two, followed by a Q&A with the audience, they have the right to make observing this order a requirement for being the audience. Merely showing up on the day does not entitle you to decide that a "lecture isn't a fair and balanced debate" or whatever criticism of the form no-platformers sometimes claim is the real basis of their protest to avoid having to admit that they are trying to prevent the expression of ideas they don't like.

The rules of decorum for large events are merely ways of making the exchange of ideas possible. They are less necessary when two people have a conversation, but even a small group discussion sometimes needs a moderator that everyone respects. Assembly under mutually agreed upon rules of decorum is not less free just because it is orderly. In fact, freedom requires such order. This right of assembly and right to determine the style of a particular encounter seems to me to be fundamental to orderly discourse. Everyone has a right to attend or not as they choose, of course. But no one has an equal and opposite "free speech" right to protest in such a way as to disrupt the proceedings. Just as you have no right to come into my office and prevent me from exchanging ideas with an invited guest. There's just no way to justify such a thing. If you cannot be persuaded to go away, my only recourse is to call the police. That's exactly what the police is for—to make the space around me safe for my activities with mutually consenting adults.

My point here is that any protest that makes it necessary to call in security in order for a conversation (even when it is as one-sided as a lecture) to proceed must be held accountable for violating the conditions of rational discussion, and therefore the founding principles of a university. If students are protesting in this way, they should do so at the risk of being expelled. If the protesters are not (or will not identify themselves as) students, they should be removed, and possibly arrested, as any other trespasser. Those "consequences" are always what civil disobedience have been about. If you're not willing to be punished for your civil disobedience, you're not doing it right. Or am I missing something here?


Jotham said...

I don't have the same context as you, and this is pretty much theory for me, but if it’s OK, I’d like to play with your concept a little further:

Let’s say that a student tries to ask a question of the guest lecturer during question time, but the moderator deems the question to be irrelevant to the conversation at hand, and therefore passes over the question. Has the student’s right to free speech been violated as yet?

So the student protests while the mic is still on and claims that the question is highly relevant, asking the moderator to please put the question to the guest speaker. The mic is shut off, so the student, in genuine frustration, raises his voice to be heard, but to no avail.

The next day, there is an open question and answer session with the guest lecturer. When the student arrives at the advertised venue, it is fairly clear to all involved that he is going to ask his question again. Is it, then, a violation of free speech to disallow him from participating in the session?

Is your answer still the same in the following two scenarios?
* The student is asking the guest lecturer to comment about a piece of evidence for a flat earth sitting on the back of a turtle.
* The student is asking about detention centre atrocities under the guest lecturer’s control.

I think that in some instances, civil disobedience by breaking with decorum is a right course of action, or may be a good way to foster genuine enquiry.

Thomas said...

In my view, the moderator's authority is essentially absolute and the situation you describe is not a violation of free speech. The audience's "free speech" rights aren't actually about the right to speak, but about the right to hear what the speaker has to say (as JS Mill said).

The authority of the moderator is part of the rules of decorum. The moderator does not always make the right call (just as an umpire isn't always right) but everyone present has to respect the moderator's judgment. If the whole audience sides with the questioner, and voices its disapproval of the moderator's decision, the moderator will usually allow the question to proceed, or the speaker to answer. Most moderators will also defer to the speaker's wishes in these cases, of course.

It is possible to imagine radical cases where the moderator loses the confidence of the audience (and/or the speaker). The right thing to do here is for the moderator to offer to step aside and let someone else take over.

The content of the question doesn't really matter. It's very rare that I would bar the student that shows up to try again the next day. They should have the chance to rephrase the question of whatever. But it depends on the nature of the earlier disruption. Students who don't respect the rules of decorum (by disrespecting the decision of the moderator) should ultimately be expelled. But that should come at the end of a long series of warnings and limited disciplinary actions.

I agree that civil disobedience is sometimes called for. But they only have any force if we know what obedience means. Civil disobedience must risk reprisals. And those reprisals must be legitimate under ordinary conditions.