|Via Newtown Grafitti|
No platforming is the practice of denying speakers the opportunity to speak at certain venues because of the views they espouse or are expected to espouse. De-platforming is the related practice of trying to remove or prevent a speaker from speaking, after they have been invited to speak or have begun to speak. In this context, ‘speaking’ can be interpreted broadly to include any opportunity given to someone to express their views to an audience (for example, a newspaper opinion writer could be de-platformed).
Although both practices can occur anywhere that speakers are provided with a platform — witness the 2018 controversy about Steve Bannon at the New Yorker festival — they are most commonly associated with university campuses. There have been several well-known incidents over the past few years in which protesters (usually student groups) have tried (sometimes with limited success) to deny speakers a platform on university campuses. Some of the best known examples include: Milo Yiannopolous at UC Berkeley, Charles Murray at Middlebury College, Maryam Namazie at Goldsmiths University, Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis University, and Germaine Greer at Cardiff University.
If they succeed, both no platforming and de-platforming are, in effect, partial forms of censorship. They do not completely prevent certain points of view from being expressed (there are, after all, many platforms), but they do prevent them from being expressed at specific times and places. In liberal thought, there is a general presumption against content-based censorship of this type. The most famous defence of free speech in the Western tradition comes from John Stuart Mill. In chapter 2 of On Liberty, Mill argued that we ought to allow for the expression of all points of view because this was a way of getting at the truth. To justify content-based censorship we have to assume a level of epistemic authority on the part of the censors that we should be inclined to doubt. Academic institutions, in particular, should be reluctant to do this since they are in the business of getting at the truth.
That said, Mill did accept that certain forms of speech could be censored or prohibited if they caused clear and identifiable harm to others. This concession creates some practical problems. Many of the recent debates about no platforming and de-platforming have accepted this Millian premise and have argued that the forms of speech in dispute do cause clear and identifiable harms to others. Thus, for example, Charles Murray’s views about race and IQ are said to be harmful to African American students on college campuses, and Germaine Geer’s views about transgender identity are said to be harmful to transgender students. In other words, no platforming has been defended in essentially Millian terms: the defenders accept that there is a presumption in favour of free speech but that this presumption is overturned in these cases because the speech acts in question do cause harm.
These arguments are controversial. ‘Harm’ is an inherently fuzzy concept. It is easily stretched and tightened to suit the circumstance. Must the harm be physical or can it be psychological too? Must the harm be directly caused by the speech or can it be indirectly caused through the incitement of third parties? There are no bright lines here and reasonable people can and do disagree about where to draw them. Some people try to narrow the definition as much as possible, others, often with an eye towards tolerance and equality, try to broaden it.
This feature of the debate about free speech and no platforming troubles Robert Simpson and Amia Srinivasan. In their article ‘No Platforming’, they argue that the standard liberal arguments get sucked into interminable and difficult-to-resolve debates about which kinds of speech are legitimately provocative and which are illegitimately harmful. This prompts them to consider whether they might be another way to resolve the issue on lines that are acceptable to proponents of traditional liberal thought. They argue that there might be. Using the concept of academic freedom, they suggest that there could be some legitimate liberal grounds on which to favour no platforming on university campuses.
In what follows, I want to critically analyse their argument. I will suggest that their proposal, though intriguing, fares little better than the Millian one they seek to supplant. I will conclude by arguing that questions concerning which kinds of speech ought to be given a platform are difficult to resolve on principled grounds. This is consistent with my previous analysis of Mill’s argument.
1. Academic Freedom and No Platforming
Simpson and Srinivasan’s argument hinges on a particular interpretation of what the purpose of a university is and the kinds of speech protection that are essential to that purpose. ‘Academic freedom’ is the conceptual label applied to the set of speech-governing rules and norms that serves this purpose.
What then is the purpose of the university and the nature of academic freedom? One view, which they dismiss, is that universities are committed to the pursuit of truth in all its forms and that speech on a university campus ought to be regulated in the same manner as speech in the public square. On this view, academic freedom can cover all speech by members of a university community, including controversial extramural speech on issues of social and political morality, unrelated to the disciplinary expertise of the academics in question. This view is predominant in public universities in the US, but is expansive and seems tantamount to saying that there is no distinctive purpose to a university other than to provide a forum for debate and conversation of all kinds. Another view, which they also dismiss, is more deflationary and holds that academic freedom is just whatever academics need it to be in order to do their work in a congenial manner. This view would obviously make it very difficult to have speech principles of any kind. Academic freedom is just a kind of power politics: whoever is in power gets to determine what can be said and what cannot be said.
In lieu of these accounts, Simpson and Srinivasan favour an account of academic freedom that was first developed by Robert Post. They do not do so because they think this is the best or most defensible account of academic freedom. They do so because they think Post’s account is reasonable and consistent with mainstream liberal principles. This somewhat non-committal endorsement of Post’s account is consistent with their rhetorical strategy which is to say ‘imagine you were a liberal; if so, is there anyway you could get onboard with some forms of no platforming?” This allows them to defend no platforming from a liberal perspective without themselves committing to that liberal perspective.
What does Post’s account of academic freedom say? It says that universities are not like the public sphere. Universities serve particular teaching and research missions. These teaching and research missions are guided by specific disciplinary norms concerning the style and content of communication. For example, if you are a scientist there is a particular methodology that you are expected to follow and a set of topics for teaching and research that fall inside the acceptable boundaries of that methodology. A physicist who teaches that the Earth is flat or that there is a perpetual motion machine is saying something that is not consistent with the communicative norms of their discipline. Similarly a historian who denies the evidence of the holocaust, and refuses to engage with the critics of their view, is not following the communicative norms of their discipline.
Academic freedom, for Post, requires that we accept that members of the relevant academic disciplines act as independent epistemic gatekeepers for their disciplines. They get to decide what the relevant methodologies and standards of evidence are. This means that there is inevitably going to be some content-based suppression of ideas. Some stuff just isn’t going to be relevant to the research and teaching missions of the different disciplines; and some stuff is going to be counter-productive to those missions. This is not to say that there cannot be growth and change within a discipline. Once upon a time, physicists believed in the existence of the luminiferous ether, nowadays they do not. But this growth and change happens through reasoned debate and argument among the independent epistemic gatekeepers.
This account of academic freedom can justify at least some forms of no platforming and de-platforming. As the epistemic gatekeepers, academics are entitled to deny certain speakers platforms or to protest the platforms given to others. If a creationist is invited to speak at a biology department, the academics within that department are within their rights to try to disinvite or deplatform them. This is entirely consistent with the mission of the biology department. Indeed, academics do, clearly, deny people platforms all the time along these lines; it’s just that most of the time this goes unobserved because we don’t know who it is they are not inviting.
Conversely — and Simpson and Srinivasan are keen to emphasise this point — the academics who serve as epistemic gatekeepers can also argue that someone has a right to speak at a university, even if their views are controversial, if they are consistent with the standards within the relevant discipline. So, for example, although there are some university administrators and politicians that might like to deny a platform to certain climate scientists because of what they say about climate change, the gatekeepers within the relevant academic disciplines can insist that they be given a platform in the interests of academic freedom.
Who gets to play this epistemic gatekeeping function? Is it just professors or permanent members of academic staff? They are certainly the most plausible candidates but Simpson and Srinivasan argue that others, including graduate students and undergraduate students can play a (lesser?) gatekeeping role. Graduate students are budding members of the relevant disciplines and so clearly have a stake in how the disciplinary standards develop. It is easy enough to make the case for them having some say over who gets a platform and who does not. Undergraduate students are a trickier case but Simpson and Srinivasan argue that they can have a role too. Members of academic disciplines are not epistemically infallible, they can be guilty of narrow-mindedness and groupthink with respect to methods and topics. Undergraduates, because they are less entrenched in the disciplinary norms, can help to spot these flaws. Thus, they can also play some role in setting the standards.
This is just an ‘in principle’ argument. It shows how someone embracing the Postian conception of academic freedom could also accept the leigitimacy of certain forms of no platforming. The devil, however, is going to be in the detail. What speakers, specifically, can be denied a platform? What do they say? What are the disciplinary norms? Who should be performing the gatekeeping function in this case? These questions will need to be answered before any actual defence of no platforming becomes persuasive.
2. Criticisms and Concerns
As I said at the outset, Simpson and Srinivasan’s argument is interesting and provocative. There is undoubtedly some truth to it. It is undeniable that academic disciplines do have some epistemic standards and these standards play a role who gets given a platform and who does not. This happens all the time, irrespective of how much controversy these gatekeeping decisions attract. To give a trivial example, I once ran a seminar series on legal philosophy in which I, along with the co-organisers of the series, frequently rejected speakers on the grounds that their papers weren’t sufficiently philosophical or theoretical. Content-based suppression takes place all the time.
Nevertheless, there are some serious problems with the argument, many of which are identified and discussed by Simpson and Srinivsan in a reasonably persuasive way. I want to review these problems here.
First, as Simpson and Srinivasan point out, there are going to be easy cases and hard cases. The Flat-earther and Holocaust denier are easy cases. Their views obviously do not comply with the standards of the relevant academic disciplines. The hard cases arise when the standards within the relevant disciplines are undergoing some kind of change or flux. In other words, when the standards are being debated with a view to the potential exclusion or inclusion of certain points of view. They single out the case of Germaine Greer as an example of a hard case. Germaine Greer was protested for her ‘trans-exclusionary’ views. Are such views still reasonably on the table within relevant academic disciplines (philosophy, gender studies etc) or are they not? This is something that is being actively debated. Given the relatively recent and underdeveloped nature of this debate, Simpson and Srinivasan conclude that Greer could not be de-platformed in a way that is consistent with the principles of academic freedom:
Some scholars with apparent institutional and disciplinary credibility – in fields like cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, gender studies, and queer studies – will insist that the questions of what a woman is and whether trans women qualify are central to feminist inquiry. Others scholars in those same fields, with similar credentials, will insist that the question has been settled and is no longer reasonably treated as open to inquiry. Given this backdrop, it is unclear whether the no platforming of someone like Greer, who denies the womanhood of trans women, could be defended as consistent with respect for academic freedom under the account we have presented. The fact that there is live controversy over the relevant standards in the relevant disciplines suggests, on its face, that there are not any authoritative disciplinary standards that could be invoked in order to characterize Greer’s no platforming as a case of someone being excluded for lacking disciplinary competence.
They do, however, go on to say just after this that this might change in the future. It might eventually be the case that there is a disciplinary consensus that blocks the expression of the trans-exclusionary view.
Second, as Simpson and Srinivasan also point out, there are different standards across different disciplines and hence sometimes there are difficult inter-disciplinary disputes about what can be expressed. The so-called hard sciences are commonly thought to have clear and definitive epistemic standards that rule certain kinds of speech in and out (usually on methodological grounds as opposed to content grounds). The softer sciences and humanities have less definitive standards. Indeed, some disciplines appear to have few if any standards. In philosophy, for example, all manner of controversial views are regularly debated. Some philosophers deny the existence of numbers, universals, the self, morality and so on. Some philosophers defend infanticide and anti-natalism. All these views are thought to be consistent with the disciplinary standards of philosophy. If we follow a ‘lowest common standard’ approach to what can be expressed on a university campus, then it might be the case that no views can be de-platformed due to the openness of philosophy to all views, even if other disciplines disagree.
Simpson and Srinivasan argue that it is not quite true to say that anything goes in a discipline like philosophy — there are still standards of rational inquiry and logical argument that must be upheld — but they seem to concede that there isn’t a good answer as to what to do about this issue:
One way to address these hard cases would be to say that any speaker seen as within the bounds of disciplinary competence by at least one discipline cannot be legitimately no platformed for the sake of upholding the disciplinary standards of any other discipline. But then the worry is that in protecting the disciplinary integrity of philosophy – as a discipline resistant to seeing any view as rationally beyond the pale – we impair other disciplines’ attempts to police their own intellectual standards.
They then go on to say that the existence of difficult cases like this does not undermine the value of the Postian-approach. Indeed, they suggest that the Postian approach may reveal what really makes these hard cases so hard, i.e. that they are not disputes about what kinds of speech are harmful (or not) but rather about what kinds of speech meet the relevant academic standards.
My own view is that there is a much more serious problem going on here than they seem willing to acknowledge. Even in the hard sciences, there are long-standing controversies about which views are accepted within the disciplinary norms and which views are not. To give a non-political/sociological example, theoretical physicists were, for a long period in the 20th century, unwilling to debate the correct interpretation of quantum theory. The few who did found themselves ridiculed and ostracised by their peers, often to the detriment of their careers (the history of this is discussed in Adam Becker’s book What is Real?). Looking back, there is now a slowly growing realisation that this suppression of work on quantum foundations was a mistake. People realise that there is something rotten at the heart of quantum theory and this needs to be resolved. There are similarly controversial cases within other disciplines. For example, the recent replication crises in biomedical science and psychology (and other experimental disciplines) has revealed serious, long-standing flaws in the disciplinary norms of biomedical science and psychology: Some kinds of studies are prioritised beyond their true academic value, and others are suppressed or ignored.
Given these historical mistakes by the epistemic gatekeepers, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that we should want anything other than a Millian approach to speech on university campuses. At the very least, the historical failure of academic disciplines to set the right epistemic standards seems to warrant a strong presumption against no platforming on content-based grounds. Censorship on purely methodological grounds might be more reasonable, but as the example of the replication crisis shows, this would seem to warrant at most the minimal epistemic standards imposed by a discipline such as philosophy, and not anything more robust and exclusionary.
Another way of putting this point is that if we accept that principles of academic freedom should determine what can be said on a university campus, it’s not clear that we end up anywhere all that different from the Millian position that Simpson and Srinivasan criticise at the start of their article. We end up with equally controversial and equally difficult-to-resolve disputes about what can be censored or not. The one advantage that the academic freedom approach has over the Millian position is that we focus on epistemic standards and not on harmfulness. But is that really a clear advantage? One could argue that the Millian position is more reasonable since it accepts that epistemic standards are too controversial a basis for censorship and focuses instead on non-epistemic reasons for censorship.
In addition to this, I also worry that the position being defended by Simpson and Srinivasan assumes too narrow a view of the purpose of a university and the members of its community. Should everything said on a university campus be beholden to the standards of academic disciplines? Universities do many things. They are engaged in teaching and research, to be sure, but they are also social communities for the students that attend them. For example, I have worked at universities with Quidditch societies for students. Quidditch is, obviously, a fictional magical game taken from the Harry Potter series. Suppose the Quidditch society invites a speaker who seems to take the fiction seriously. They talk about flying brooms and magic spells with seeming earnestness. Could the physics faculty rightfully de-platform this speaker on the grounds that what they are saying is not consistent the disciplinary norms of physics? I find that deeply counterintuitive and not because I think the Quidditch society has its own epistemic standards that it can use to regulate speech. The Quidditch society isn’t connected to the research and teaching mission of the physics department. It serves another purpose, one that the physics department has no right to overturn.
There is a serious point lurking here. Many of the controversial cases of no platforming and de-platforming arise from student societies inviting speakers to university campuses. Sometimes these student societies have purposes that are intimately linked to specific academic disciplines, but oftentimes they do not. Student religious societies or political societies or sports societies, for example, do not serve purposes that are obviously linked to academic disciplines. Why should principles of academic freedom constrain what gets said at the platforms provided by these student societies? Simpson and Srinivasan do allude to this issue in a footnote when comparing no platforming of crank ‘experts’ at research seminars vis-a-vis student societies. Here is what they say, in full:
It is a more complicated case if the Holocaust denier or oil company shill is a credentialed expert in the relevant discipline. If they were invited by their disciplinary peers to address an academic research seminar – say, if the history department unwittingly invited a crank, and then opted not to rescind the invitation – then their no platforming wouldn’t be acceptable under Post’s account. If they were invited to address a student club or the like, then the case for the acceptability of them being no platformed would be stronger, all else being equal. At minimum, it cannot be the case that the status of these speakers as disciplinary experts entails that their academic freedom (or that academic freedom per se) is infringed just because a particular student club has not given them a platform to espouse their views.
The phrase ‘all else being equal’ might be doing a lot of work here but my immediate reaction to this is that the case for no platforming at the student society can only be more persuasive if (a) you accept that student societies are bound by the norms of academic freedom and (b) you assume students have much less epistemic authority than academics. Both of these assumptions can be questioned, particularly the first.
There could be a separate issue here as to whether certain kinds of student societies should be allowed to exist. Maybe universities shouldn’t allow students to set up groups (with institutional approval) that are inconsistent with academic research and teaching missions. But once they do allow them, I find it hard to accept that they must all abide by the principles of academic freedom. If that is right, then it is difficult to see how speech can be regulated at such societies other than by applying something like the Millian harm principle.
To sum up, Simpson and Srinivasan try to use the concept of academic freedom to justify (in principle) some forms of no-platforming. To be precise, they have used Robert Post’s account of academic freedom to argue that academic disciplines serve particular research and teaching missions and are entitled to use certain epistemic standards to regulate speech in a way that serves those missions. While this is an interesting proposal, I think its practical difficulties are more severe than Simpson and Srinivasan seem willing to acknowledge.