Ken White at Popehat takes the Chancellor of Berkeley to task for an email he sent to students faculty & staff on the subject of free speech. You can see what’s coming a mile off, can’t you – the Chance said free speech is very nice but you can’t say anything Offensive.
Well he didn’t, really, although he did say something tending in that general direction – free speech to work properly should be civil and respectful yadda yadda. But Ken thinks he said it With Menaces, so to speak, and I don’t really think he did. Several commenters don’t think so either. (For a piquant detail I’ll add that before I saw this post of Ken’s, I saw a tweet of Sommers’s on the same subject, and I read the Chance’s email then, and thought it was more advice than commands. Who knows, maybe if I’d seen Ken’s post first I would have agreed with him. Priming, doncha know.) (Mind you, I did think it was depressingly woolly bureaucratic buzz-speak even then.)
Let’s take a look.
…it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated.
Well, no, not really – that’s a woolly generality that doesn’t really mean very much. But I don’t think it’s particularly worrying. I think it’s just some advice, not an announcement of new Rules For Speaking.
After some more wool, there’s even more wool.
Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.
Now, Ken takes that “requires” literally, as the Chance telling everyone that civility is required:
Civility is an admirable value. It is right and fit that we ask it of each other and impose social consequences upon the uncivil. But speech need not be civil to be entitled to robust protection.
But the Chance isn’t saying otherwise. He isn’t saying it need be civil to be entitled to robust protection, he’s saying it need be civil to be available and usable for everyone. It’s a different kind of “needs” or “requires” – not literal, but the condition of something else happening. “I need to inhale some coffee if I’m going to stay awake for the Chancellor’s talk.” That’s not someone compelling me to inhale some coffee, it’s a necessary condition for my staying awake. That’s what the Chance takes civility to be for everyone’s ability to exercise her right to free speech.
That’s what I think anyway.