Even at university, speech can never be entirely free | Times Higher Education

News that the Australian government has launched a review of free speech on campus is another reminder of just how fraught the question of who gets to speak at universities has become.

In recent years, we have seen a series of high-profile cases where the presence, absence or “no platforming” of speakers has led to deep dissatisfaction with universities in the anglophone world.

Our capacity to participate in an exchange of ideas is at the core of what we do as institutions. But while it is easy to apply blanket support to the idea of “academic free speech”, it is amply clear that, even in the academy, speech is never without limits.

For instance, we have no obligation to provide a platform to speech that does not open itself to rejoinders by other speech. The chance to rebut arguments with which we disagree is an example of how free speech can check itself, with one person’s speech curbing or contextualising the excesses of another. University of Michigan philosopher Carl Cohen writes that one reason why falsely shouting “fire” in a theatre disqualifies a speaker from protection is that it “permits no discussion” and gives “no opportunity for reasoned reply”. Universities can and should provide such an opportunity, so when speech becomes inimical to reply – through name-calling, for example – it should not be tolerated.