free speech

Protest on a planned speech by controversial Breitbart editor at University of California

Source: Elijah Nouvelage

In the last few months, campuses in India and the US have been roiled by free speech controversies, marred further by acts of violence. In the US, an event on February 1 at the University of California Berkeley featuring rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was called off two hours before its planned start because of protests that turned destructive. While the extent of student participation in the violence remains unclear, the opposition to Yiannopoulos’ speech appeared to contradict the image of Berkeley as a famously liberal haven for free speech. In India, in the third week of February, an event at Ramjas College in Delhi University, featuring Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), had to be cancelled because of violent protests by members of the Hindu rightwing student group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyathi Parishad (ABVP). The group claimed the college was providing a platform to ‘anti-nationals,’ given that Khalid stood accused of shouting anti-India slogans at a public demonstration on the JNU campus in 2016.

The controversies in both contexts have raised questions about the state of free speech in the universities, made more urgent in an age of instant social media outrage and fake news. A look at the actual practice of free speech in the Indian and American universities gives us a sense of what is at stake in the assault on free speech in the current historical moment. In this reflection, I propose three arguments: first, free speech in any university setting, Indian or American, can never be a formulaic, absolutist implementation of a principle; second, while the Right of majorities have usually been identified enemies of free speech in various contexts, opposition to free speech has also come from the liberal and Left end of the political spectrum and from minorities; and, three, the debate around free speech cannot be seen in isolation from either national or global political trends, such, as for instance, Islamic terrorism in the present moment.

In India, the state of speech on campuses has generally echoed the approach of the postcolonial state, which, in turn, has continued the habits of its colonial predecessor in proscribing free expression. Speech has been subject to the limitations on the constitutional right to expression imposed by sections 153A and 295A of the Indian penal code, which seek, respectively, to punish those who would promote enmity between different communities and to deliberately insult any religious group. The principles, which double as protections against hate speech, have been widely misused as instruments of harassment meant to silence voices, not least by political, cultural, or religious organisations seeking political capital. The silencing of speech on campuses has also often taken a more directly ugly form, with authors, artists and intellectuals routinely threatened or attacked for espousing unpopular views. In 1992, Mushiral Hasan, the Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, was severely assualted for stating that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses did not deserve to be banned. In 2011, scholar A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” was dropped from the Delhi University syllabus because of opposition from Hindu rightwing groups who objected to its very premise.

In the global imagination, the American university campuses have long been seen as a utopia of free speech. Yet, this idealised image obscures two important facts.

One, like India, the US also has its sacred cows, that is, issues or terms that are for the most part de facto off limits. The limits vary across institutions, but two examples that apply widely across academia are the use of the N-word and unqualified criticism of Israel’s policies with regard to Palestinians.  In 2003, a faculty member in the anthropology department at the Emory University used the phrase “six n------ in the woodpile” at a public event. She was censured and made to undergo diversity training as a punitive measure for using racist language. In 2006, former US President, Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid drew strong criticism from countless Jewish scholars across the US for comparing Israeli policies to those of apartheid South Africa, and, indeed, for the use of the term ‘apartheid’ itself.

Two, the practice of free speech in the American university setting has always been subject to an intricate balancing act of various factors: defence of the principle of free speech; an acknowledgment of histories of inequality and unequal power relations between different groups; and the imperative of fairness in ensuring that no group, particularly historically oppressed communities, is deliberately attacked by speech. In other words, the ACLU standard of defending the First Amendment does not quite apply to the US university campuses.

Needless to say, the realities of free speech in both settings have been quite messy. In the Indian case, commentators have rightly pointed out that universities like Jamia Millia University have hypocritically sought to obstruct free speech on grounds of liberal principles like secularism and the protection of minority rights. They have also pointed to the doublespeak of the Indian liberal-Left in not actively opposing bans on material deemed offensive to minorities while skewering similar acts of censorship with regard to the portrayal of the majority Hindu community. In the US, White groups have argued that they too need to be seen as a historically oppressed community, akin to Blacks, gays, women, LGBT persons, and individuals from formerly colonised nations.

Another important issue in these free speech controversies appears to be the gray zone between what constitutes merely offensive speech and hate speech. With the general shift toward the Right in the global zeitgeist and the increasing legitimacy in public discourse of the Far Right, what used to be considered beyond the pale in acceptable speech is now no longer seen as unequivocally unacceptable. Milo Yiannopoulos may still fall beyond the pale for many, but his invitations to speak at US colleges indicates, worryingly, that many of the openly discriminatory views that he espouses are considered legitimate by a section of the student population. In India, likewise, organisations like the RSS and their affiliates, once relegated to the margins, are now routinely visible on campuses and in seminars, literary festivals, and the like.

And finally, in a post 9/11 world, it is no surprise that Islam, a key component of contemporary global discourse, is central to these controversies. In India, the practice of ‘secular’ censorship as a strategy of not offending Muslims, exemplified by the ludicrous Congress-imposed ban on The Satanic Verses, has been happily exploited by Hindu rightwing organisations. In fact, religious groups now seek a monopoly of any representation of the faith or cultural tradition. In the US, Muslim student groups on campuses have objected to speakers or even the screening of films like American Sniper on grounds of the bogus charge of ‘Islamophobia.’ In conjunction with the new frenzy on college campuses about ‘microagressions’ and ‘cultural appropriation,’ they have paradoxically fed the image of Muslims as intolerant, opposed to free speech and of universities as spaces dedicated to coddling minorities at the expense of the majority.

There is no, one-size-fits all, easy solution to this situation. But fighting for the university as a space of free expression and non-violent protest — that is also a form of free speech — may be a small start.

Rohit Chopra is an Associate Professor of Communication at the Santa Clara University

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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