Surprisingly Sensitive—Civility and Freedom of Speech

Russell Blackford

We have many solid reasons to support freedom of speech and expression. (For brevity, I’ll use the phrase “free speech,” though I have in mind not only spoken and written words but also flag burning, meaningful gestures, paintings and sculptures, clothing choices, and the whole human repertoire of expressive behavior.) Free speech is needed for robust participation in democratic deliberation, bold investigation in the sciences and humanities, and our own self-development and self-presentation. We need it, too, to challenge the authority of powerful organizations and institutions that would tell us how to live our lives. Thus, it’s essential to all our other freedoms enjoyed in modern liberal democracies.

There are some situations where limits on free speech can be justified. There might, for example, be a good case for restrictions on damaging lies about identifiable individuals or on fraudulent claims about commercially advertised products and services. All the same, the exceptions must not be permitted to undermine the rule. Exceptional, distinctive, and compelling interests of some kind had better be at stake whenever the state imposes limits on what we can say or how we express ourselves. The resulting restrictions should be defined as narrowly as practical to achieve the main purpose.

Free speech is primarily about the operation of state power. We have every reason to fear government interference with our ideas, artistic expression, and self-presentation. A problem arises, however, when non-state power—perhaps the power of an employer or perhaps that of individuals with large media platforms—is used to intimidate us into conformity or silence. That can be almost as frightening as the power of the state.

Consider the power of employers to hire and fire. Generally speaking, employers have legitimate reasons to restrict how employees communicate and present themselves in the workplace. Those reasons can relate to corporate image, the convenience of customers and clients, workforce harmony, or general business efficiency. Employees typically accept employment knowing that it involves some such restrictions. In important ways, employers are not in the same position as the government. Still, even workplaces should not be zones of total conformity. And what about employers who reach beyond the workplace, sometimes firing staff for their off-the-job expression of, say, political or religious opinions? Such examples underscore the importance of free-speech values in numerous situations where the government is not involved.

I’m not the first commentator to notice that at least some arguments for free speech are primarily arguments for protection of relatively civil speech, the kind that might be acceptable in an academic seminar. In such an environment, personal attacks, indignant posturing, and expressions of contempt for other participants may detract from a common search for truth and understanding. While academic debates may sometimes grow heated, a degree of self-restraint is expected if they’re to be productive.

Nor, however, am I the first commentator to notice that government enforcement of a standard of civility would chill much impassioned or spontaneous speech that is valuable in social and political debate. For that reason, I’d be appalled if the government proposed to limit merely uncivil, rather than legally defamatory or seriously fraudulent, speech. I’d be equally appalled if a college or university attempted to impose the standards of an academic seminar on the ordinary interactions involving its staff and students outside the classroom.

There’s undoubtedly a place for voluntary adherence to a standard of civility. There are undeniably many situations where hurtful or hostile speech may disrupt the search for truth. Some individuals who might have made useful contributions can be cowed into silence. Everyone’s attention might be distracted from the inquiry at hand. On that basis, I support the voluntary practice of civility as a general rule, while also acknowledging that there can be occasions for aggressive denunciations—and that, alas, we must all make judgment calls in the varied situations in which we find ourselves. Aggressive language toward individuals may frequently be out of line and merit harsh criticism, but I don’t want the case-by-case judgments about this, some of them difficult and subtle, to be made by state officials.

One recent contretemps about these issues involved Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. On September 5, 2014, Dirks sent an e-mail to the campus community to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. This communication might seem a halfhearted celebration of free speech, since much of it discusses where to draw lines between constitutionally protected and unprotected speech, the danger of offensive or aggressive speech chilling others’ contributions to debate, and other nuanced, though important, issues. Arguably, Dirks chose the wrong emphasis at a time of celebration—perhaps these subtleties could have been left for another occasion.

Yet, even this is a matter of judgment. A case could also be made that the e-mail was thoughtful and timely. Even if I disagree with that, I see little in the wording that should merit any very harsh response. Perhaps its most worrying statement is the following: “Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas.” Here, Dirks overstates his case. Courtesy and respect may well assist the meaningful and productive exchange of ideas in most situations. Their absence may detract, in far too many circumstances, from making intellectual progress. But it overreaches to claim that courtesy and respect “are basic preconditions for any meaningful exchange of ideas.”

Fortunately, Dirks clarified his position in a follow-up email about a week later. He stated plainly that he does not propose any constraint on free speech or compromise of academic freedom. This was a useful clarification, and there, I think, the matter should rest. While Dirks’s statements may not be ideal, he did not at any point show serious hostility to the idea of free speech, and he was correct at least to this extent: adherence to standards of civility can complement free speech in the pursuit of truth, rather than requiring trade-offs, since they are justified by some of the same deeper values.

Incivility violates an important, though not overriding, value. It can be an enemy of rational inquiry and intellectual progress, and it may often merit harsh criticism—perhaps, on occasion, even rather uncivil criticism if the initial incivility is especially reckless and extreme. All that, however, is normally a judgment for individuals to make. It should not be made by the government or by bodies such as universities (whether publicly or privately established).

It should—or so I’d have thought—be obvious that freedom of speech (especially freedom from the coercive power of the state) and civility in discussion and debate (in most circumstances, best adhered to voluntarily) are both of great importance. They can sometimes be in tension, but, as Dirks emphasized in the debate at Berkeley, they are normally complementary values.

For all that, this cluster of issues presses people’s buttons. The current social climate in most Western countries is one of great sensitivity about speech that causes offense, but it’s also a climate in which wounding feelings and harming reputations are the cherished tactics of many political activists. None of that is likely to change soon. We can expect many more controversies about the nature, value, and role of civility and how it relates to free speech.


Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer at the University
of Newcastle, Australia, and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His most recent book is Intelligence Unbound: The Future of Uploaded and Machine Minds, coedited with Damien Broderick (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.


Civility is valuable, yet not so much so that the state—or a university—can properly require it.

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