Face-off: Universities should never restrict controversial speakers

Two opposing opinions go head to head

Debate podium Art: Stephanie Barahona

Kristi Cheng argues ‘for’:

Earlier this month, more than 400 people signed a petition opposing anti-Islamic activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali1 appearing on Q&A. Hirsi Ali ended up cancelling her trip to Australia due to security concerns. On the night of the Q&A panel, the former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt responded, “This is Australia, there’s freedom of speech … The point is that I will fight for your right to say whatever you want even though … I might not agree with you.” And she is right.

Democratic values are a cornerstone of Australian identity, and though we have no constitutional protection for free speech as America does, being a democracy implies such a freedom of expression. For true democracy to exist, people must not only be given a right to express their views, but a platform to do so.

Universities and Q&A are both places to discuss ideas — anyone who has a legitimate contribution to make to public debate should be welcomed to speak. Hate speech laws provide sufficient limitations on freedom of expression to protect groups at risk of being vilified.

A popular argument for suppressing free speech is that universities are one of the few places where students can challenge ideas in a safe environment.

Despite good intentions, tighter regulations risk creating the sort of liberal echo chambers that facilitated the ascent of an American president with principles contradictory to those supposedly found in academic environments — transparency, civility, and truthfulness. Efforts to curate what students at university hear denies them the opportunity to confront a world filled with people who don’t believe in what they do, or think as they do. Students who are not used to seeing the world through eyes not their own are deprived of an education to become well-informed, thoughtful citizens and will have a difficult time empathetically leaping from their limited points of view to that of another.

And we mustn’t forget: free speech works both ways. Supporting the right for a controversial speaker to give a presentation does not mean we lose our right to speak up and condemn what is presented.

It is the mission of universities to be places where new ideas can be advanced, critical thinking is encouraged, and where open and free debate can and must take place, even if this occasionally involves inviting speakers with contentious views. In the words of French essayist and moralist, Joseph Joubert, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

1Hirsi Ali has been a vocal critic of radical Islam and has called for moderate Muslims to reform the religion.

Dominic Bui Vet argues ‘against’:

To those who see universities as becoming increasingly insular echo chambers, this question flags all the hallmarks of the continued affront to freedom of expression. The University of Sydney has come under fire for multiple instances of restricting controversial speakers and events.

Notably, these include contention surrounding the Dalai Lama’s talk in 2013 and an anti-militarisation meeting just before ANZAC day in 2015. The University of Sydney Union was recently both praised and criticised for banning the use of union resources for a screening of The Red Pill. The reasons behind these restrictions are different, but the passionate discussions they create almost always ask: who chooses what views are given a platform and why?

It’s important to emphasise the term ‘platform’ rather than speech; everyone deserves the right to speak, but no one has the right to an audience.

The decision by universities to deny controversial speakers that audience is never made in a vacuum. It is the culmination of political, social, and corporate pressures. This is the check and balance removing the power from a centralised authority dictating who can and cannot be given an audience.

What matters is where that decentralised power ends up being held. In a report by The Huffington Post titled ‘At Some British Universities, Free Speech Comes at a Price’, the author references numerous speakers whose invitations were rescinded following protests.

The author then claims that controversial speakers encourage “constructive learning” about views that are not aligned with their own. Debate is not necessarily constructive or important just because it is controversial, and not everything that someone disagrees with is just a version of the truth they don’t want to hear.

I contend that examples of speakers being uninvited actually provides a different lesson — it tells us that students’ voices have power to make a stand for the values they hold when there are enough of them. This does not represent silencing — a university lecture is not the only, nor is it the most important, platform from which to speak.

The type of free speech that most often gets raised in these discussions is not the legal kind, or even the natural kind (the one that philosophy students get passionately angry about when you misuse the term). It’s the nebulous, misused concept of a capital ‘R’ inalienable right. It’s the kind that makes people believe their actions should have no recourse; that entitles them to occupy any space they wish. It’s contradictory because it only goes one way. It makes people say “Hey, listen, what I’m saying is important”, and to those people I say: who are you to decide I should be quiet and listen?