Scholars Call for Limits on Freedom of Speech

Published March 20, 2020

Speakers at an academic conference at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) criticized freedom of speech and called for tighter limitations on public discourse.

The National Communication Association, an organization of communications professors, and UNCG’s Department of Communication Studies sponsored the meeting titled “Finding Expression in Contested Public Spaces,” held October 24 and 25. Seven panels of academics discussed free speech, racism, and groups of people marginalized by society.

Free speech is elevated by claims that it is a viewpoint-neutral concept, but it empowers hate speech, Marina Lambrinou, a teacher at UNC-Greensboro, told the audience ata panel titled “Pedagogy and the 1st Amendment.”

“Our work is predicated upon understanding free speech as a form of oppression,” Lambrinou said in her remarks. “Free speech is weaponized to spread hate, elevate white supremacy, and incite acts of violence. However, free speech is also legitimated by the protections it is afforded and by the position it occupies in popular discourse as a race- and disparity-neutral construct.”

‘Implicated in Racism’

The conference was “designed to affirm principles of free speech,” states a notice on UNCG’s website. During the opening keynote speech, however, Eric King Watts, an associate professor of communication studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, spoke in opposition to free speech in his address titled “Tribalism, Voicelessness, and the Problem of Free Speech.”

The concept of free speech developed in a slaveholding culture that did not recognize the rights of non-Europeans, Watts told the conference audience.

“In particular, freedom of speech is conceptualized and found in documents as a universal human capacity and right requiring legislative and judicial protections,” Watts told the audience. “But this late 18th-century idealism obscures the manner in which freedom of speech is always already implicated in racism.”

It is particularly dangerous to allow today’s Republican Party freedom to speak, Watts told the audience.

“Over the last two decades, the GOP has mutated from a traditional conservative party into an insurgent force that threatens the norms and institutions of American democracy,” Watts said.

“Put bluntly, the Left is not really intolerant of conservative values,” Watts said. “Indeed, many of us here probably wish for the good old days when we just had to deal with the neocons. Rather, the Left is intolerant of racism, homophobism, xenophobism, and misogyny.”

Calls for Censorship

The allegedly negative consequences of free speech could require additional regulation, Lisbeth Lipari, a professor at Denison University who participated in a session titled “Academic Freedom & Campus Free Speech,” told the audience.

“[In regard] to whether or not we should restrict free speech in some new ways: possibly,” Lipari said.

A “European model” of speech that would move society from a forum of “free speech” to one with “the duty to listen,” was discussed by Lambrinou and Yacine Kout of the University of North Georgia.

“Not everyone’s perspective needs a place to be listened to,” Kout said.

Single-Minded Diversity

A UNCG student noted the one-sidedness of the conference during a question and answer session.

“[You all] talked a lot about power dynamics and oppression, but I’ve only seen examples coming from one point of view,” the student commented to the presenters.

Other viewpoints should be considered, but the expression of some ideas could be harmful, Mark Congdon Jr. of the College of Saint Rose said in response to the student.

“Yes, [diversity of opinion] is important when we talk about how do we incorporate these other voices,” Congdon said. “But then understanding … how free speech can also be used to oppress—and it gets at power and authority—in terms of how you might be using your free speech to silence and harm others. And that’s not okay, regardless of anyone’s political views.”

Says Minorities Benefit Most

Free speech protects minority voices, says Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“The idea that protecting free speech for everyone ends up benefiting the powerful over the powerless is both ahistorical—our nation’s movements for abolition and civil rights attest to that—and nonsensical,” Shibley told School Reform News. “After all, powerful majorities can rely on that power to ensure their right to be heard. It is those who are marginalized who need free speech the most.”

Academics should acknowledge the importance of contesting viewpoints, says Jenna A. Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

“It’s disappointing that communications scholars are so skeptical of the value of free speech,” Robinson said. “I’d like to see more support among professors for open debate, free inquiry, and the marketplace of ideas.”

Branson Inscore ([email protected]) is a Blundell Fellow at the John William Pope Foundation. An earlier version of this article was published by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Adapted and reprinted with permission.