Anthropology / Everything Human

The Myth of Free Speech

The Myth of Free Speech

Anti-racism movements on U.S. campuses have raised a key question about language and freedom: Can we really say anything at any time?

Among the critiques of anti-racist activism on U.S. campuses, none is more misguided than the case for unfettered free speech.

Protesters such as hunger striker Jonathan Butler at the University of Missouri have argued that “a campus where people feel free to call people the n-word” cannot offer students of color an environment where they can focus on their education. Such arguments led columnist George Will to quip that Butler and his colleagues “cut class the day the First Amendment was taught.” As Will saw it, acceding to those students’ demands would “guarantee not freedom of speech but freedom from speech.”

But the First Amendment says merely that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Since congressional laws are not at stake in the campus controversy, Will’s conception of free speech seems to be that in the United States, anyone has the right to say anything at any time. And while this is manifestly untrue (legally, you cannot yell “fire” in a movie theater, and teachers have a right to maintain “classroom order” by regulating speech), it reflects, accurately enough, a commonsense understanding of free speech.

But this conception is a myth, because it treats speech as a “freedom,” a thing citizens “possess,” rather than an ongoing and omnipresent activity structured by grammatical and social rules.

To be understood, speakers must follow the grammatical rules of the language used in their community. A speaker can usually disregard one or more grammatical rules in a sentence and still be understood. For example, most American English speakers would understand a person who says, “feet my are cold.” But a person who breaks too many grammatical rules will become incomprehensible (“cold my are feet”).

Beyond the rules of grammar there are rules governing the social use of language. We start teaching our children these rules from the moment they begin to talk. “Don’t use that word at the dinner table,” “do not take God’s name in vain,” and so on. We have all absorbed so many of these rules over time that we are almost always “polite,” whether we are aware of it or not. There are many things we will not permit ourselves to say in many contexts, a state of affairs we routinely accept.

It is important to recognize that rules of politeness vary by cultural context and change over time. What was once speakable can become unspeakable, and vice versa. For example, when I arrived at the University of Virginia in 1986, it was customary at football games for many people in the crowd to mock the word “gay” in the school song. “We come from old Virginia/Where all is bright and gay”—the singing of these phrases brought a boisterous, semiorganized response of “Not gay!” in the musical pause that precedes the next line of the song. But in the 1990s, university groups devoted to gay rights began campaigning to challenge this tradition, which has gradually disappeared. Today, people no longer feel “free” to use a public ritual in a way that is insulting to an important part of our community, and the vast majority of the community prefers it that way (although there are exceptions—which are swiftly censured).

To say that the students who campaigned to do away with “Not gay!” violated the free-speech rights of members of our community is to rely on that commonsensical notion of free speech that is, as I have shown, unrealistic. It is true, of course, that the university tries to be an institution where people can freely speak their minds. But like any “speech community”—a group of speakers who share a set of expectations of how language should be used—university professors and students observe a multitude of rules about who can say what to whom.

In the current debate about racist language on university campuses, those who denounce the student protesters in the name of free speech misrepresent how language really works. This enables them to use the myth of free speech as a proxy to argue against the political arguments the protesters are making. The anti-anti-racism critique (let’s call it what it is!) implies that the current state of affairs, in which racist speech is allowable and defensible, is a state of freedom from rules of speech. But there is no speech community without rules of speech.

Thus the real question that is being debated is this: To what extent is racist speech acceptable in the public spaces of these institutions? If the protesters were to succeed in their aims they would simply be changing the rules of public decorum at their universities, just as protesters at the University of Virginia did with respect to our school song.

But if they fail, it will not mean that the right of free speech has been preserved and protected. It will only mean that one set of rules about what the community deems speakable has won out, for the time being.

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  • quidnunc1

    I think it’s important to point out that civility shouldn’t be confused with manners or etiquette. Civility is a form of linguistic politeness associated with self restraint and tact, yes, but it also asks for charity and engagement. Manners are rule governed aspects of politeness and etiquette is the study and codification of manners according to conventional norms and expectations in a society, social class or group.

    Context matters. We don’t confront an acquaintance about deeply held beliefs and yet in a different forum it becomes entirely appropriate as a part of citizenship or other collective discussion about the world we want. In the former scenario tolerance or “live and let live” wins because it is social lubrication whereas in the latter some of the dialogic virtues may take precedence. Both sides of this debate seem confused about what is the appropriate stance regarding expression.

    • quidnunc1

      I wanted to add. lest I be understood, that the stereotype of “racist language” and what is labelled racist can diverge quite a bit. So there are cases where we can all obviously agree are beyond the pale. The issue is when we use the hermeneutics of suspicion to find racist intent or implications which creates classes of ideas which are politically unacceptable that would be rendered reasonable topics of discussion if a little more civility were applied to arrive at some understanding to agree or disagree with the best form of the position we can muster. One example: I’ve recently been listening to discussions between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury about their thoughts which question received views on topics important to race with a preface to not misunderstand what they are saying because of the tendency to reflexively label them as racist. There are many politically charged topics where there is a received point of view which should be questioned if not only to ask why it is we believe what we believe and if it is consistent with the best arguments and facts about the issues of the day.

      Fostering civility on Campus. Judy Rookstool

  • wiltwiltfong

    One quibble. You may lawfully yell “fire” in a crowded theatre. You may not falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

  • dougfir

    Maybe the bigger “free speech” issue on campus is the kerfuffle over “trigger warnings.” Many people think that a well-rounded education requires open discussion of subject matter that will make some people uncomfortable.

    • Sprite

      Trigger warnings don’t exist to keep people from being made uncomfortable, they exist to help people avoid being subjected to something that will remind them of traumatic experiences. I.e., a warning before a class about a video with loud noises or gore will help an ex soldier (or anyone) avoid being launched back into a bad experience.

  • Scottcm

    You attempt to equate grammatical rules with law. These are neither equivalent not relevant. Social standards are also not at issue. The only thing that is relevant is does a government institution have the legal right to restrict free speech. This article is of such poor quality and lacks logical rigor that it offers nothing to the debate.

    Extremely disappointing from a site trying to promote science.

  • Torbjörn Larsson

    I am coming from a culture were free speech is a lot more regulated than in US, and I react to the article’s myth of ‘the myth’ of free speech.

    “But this conception is a myth, because it treats speech as a “freedom””.

    The article lost it here, since free speech is a codified human right. I don’t believe I have to cite this!

    “Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

    [ ]

    But let’s slough on in the muddy waters. Free speech are after all, like free markets, regulated in order to avoid dysfunctional events. You can’t falsely yell fire in a theater, or promote immediate violence or hate speech in most of Europe.

    The article tries to make an undefined “language” as more important than the message. Failure there too.

    Final failure: “To what extent is racist speech acceptable”. No extent is acceptable of course. But how can you argue against it without free speech in the first place?

    *Unbelievable*, if it wasn’t fallible human nature. Poor US, let us hope the downfall of its academia won’t take too much in Europe. (Reportedly, the attack on human rights have taken in UK too. :-/) And let us hope science and education survives this latest attempt to make – as the attackers of human rights themselves have voiced – universities ‘homes’ rather than places of free study!”