- Editor's Note, June 2021
expressive and academic freedom in context: rights, responsibilities and harms
This special issue of KIEJ is a dispatch from the front lines of the latest culture wars.
When "culture war" was first coined in the 1990s, the bête noire of conservative America was "political correctness." The argot of today's culture wars is more protean. 2016 saw a flurry of articles and think-pieces about "deplatforming" and "safe spaces." Today, the focus has shifted to "cancel culture" and "wokeness".
Whatever the terminology, we are once again hearing the alarm about illiberal threats to free speech (in particular campus free speech—and to a lesser extent academic freedom).
2017 saw angry demonstrations against such figures as Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, Charles Murray at Middlebury and Richard Spencer at the University of Florida. Those protests—and their images—were exploited in the service of a growing narrative about a campus free speech crisis.
In the panic about the "intolerant left" that ensued and that still persists, the intolerance of the speakers who provoke this kind of student response is too frequently ignored. Student protestors are often dismissed as "snowflakes" prone to easy offense. However, some of the most vigorous student protests have been to racist pseudoscientists and neo-Nazis. It is precisely to intolerance that these students object.
Their protests occur against the background of minoritized students and scholars increasing their participation in higher education, despite its still exclusionary character. Students attend colleges built on the proceeds of the [End Page vii] slave trade, and engage with syllabi, textbooks and indeed whole curricula that continue to center white men. In short, higher education remains inhospitable to many students (and professors!) from under-represented groups, even without major events featuring white supremacists.
Whatever one might think about students defending their classrooms and homes—for, campuses are inter alia homes—from Nazis, the media's and the public's fascination with student protest corresponds to a comparative inattention to what are arguably much deeper challenges to universities.
Even before the pandemic, one in five small liberal arts colleges in the U.S. teetered on the brink of insolvency due to declining enrollments, increased demand for vocational and technical training, and fierce competition with other schools. Further, the tenure system has steadily eroded for decades such that today a majority of post-secondary instructors are employed in often-precarious contract positions.
Tenure was devised specifically to protect academic staff from reprisal for their controversial scholarship and speech. The erosion of this protection is a much deeper threat to the freedom of inquiry and belief than the alleged campus free speech crisis, but it gets considerably less attention.
Among the reasons for the bias present in discussions of expressive and academic freedom is the domination of that discussion by liberal and libertarian political and legal theorists. In general, social and ethical philosophers—especially feminist and anti-oppressive scholars—have tended to focus less on putative rights (such as free speech or academic freedom) and more on responsibilities and harms.
With this special issue we aim to address this lacuna. The articles occur at the intersection of expressive and academic freedom on the one hand and social responsibility on the other. Our authors consider questions like the following: What are the justifications for and limits to free speech and academic freedom? What responsibilities are attendant upon these freedoms? What are the harms attendant upon unfettered free speech, and who in particular is harmed?
In "Free Speech Skepticism" Susan Brison goes looking for a "free speech principle"—a justification grounding the First Amendment right to free speech. She argues that the search for such a principle is especially crucial in the age of the internet for two reasons. First, if there is a moral justification for free speech, then social media providers may be bound by the obligation to defend free speech. Second, the internet has made communications truly global such that, if free speech is morally justified, [End Page viii] we need more than the First Amendment to defend it. (After all, only the U.S. is bound by the First Amendment.) In the end...