In defence of free speech: Original letter to the Cambridge Union

The following piece was written in autumn 2021 prior to the Union President’s U-turn on creating a ‘blacklist’ of speakers, following the Union debate on whether there is such a thing as good taste. On the advice of the anonymous co-author (who requested anonymity at the time), the piece was not published then. Now it is published, in light of the U-turn and the year that has elapsed since.

An Open Letter to the Cambridge Union

Defending Free Speech Since 1815 — this is how the Cambridge Union self-advertises on its website. As a champion of free speech, the Union hosts weekly debates where speakers defend their positions before a lively crowd. This, at least, is what the Cambridge Union is meant to be: a bastion of free speech. But on 8 November the Union swerved away from its mission, announcing in an email to members, “we will create a blacklist of speakers never to be invited back, and we will share it with other Unions too.” It’s worth asking what this announcement has to do with the Union’s self-described role.

The Cambridge Union’s homepage: A promise to be kept.

The blacklist-decision followed a controversial debate on 4 November (“This house believes there is no such thing as good taste”), when the first speaker for the opposition defended good taste by arguing that there is such a thing as bad taste. As an illustration, the speaker delivered an impression of Hitler’s vile racism, meant to demonstrate that there really is such a thing as bad taste — and that, therefore, there must be such a thing as good taste. Then someone from the audience delivered a floor speech challenging the premise of this argument and arguing that racism is not “bad taste” — it is simply racism.

We don’t wish to adjudicate the merits of the speech in question. Instead, we’d like to point out the plurality of views within the debate itself. Three speakers argued for, and three against, the motion. Many audience-members voiced their views. Even the issue behind today’s controversy — an impersonation of the most morally condemnable individual in history, Adolf Hitler, as an example of “bad taste” — was debated, first in a floor speech, then in the Varsity. Together, the debate itself and the pieces in this publication constitute free speech in action.

But is free speech a good thing? And even granting that it is, what’s wrong with drawing a line where free speech ends? We can think of two reasons why free speech matters, and why the Union should defend it relentlessly. 

Our reasons centre on a basic truth: human beings know very little. We can’t claim certain knowledge about what is true and what is false, so we’re left to make tentative judgments. As a result, free discussion is essential. It frees us from personal hunches and prejudices, allowing us to develop criteria for truth and build a common corpus of knowledge. It pits ideas against each other, letting the best ones win. That’s the first reason we need free speech — to discern what’s really the case by engaging with other free-thinking people. 

But there’s a second reason: while free speech is imperfect, the alternative is worse. Free speech challenges authority and bolsters democracy by giving everyone a voice, but limitations tend toward authoritarianism. Limits don’t just stop discussion in public forums such as the Union. They prevent challenges to the current powers, giving elected or unelected officials absolute authority over who can speak, and thus artificially halting the battle of ideas essential to civil society. By drawing up a blacklist and barring speakers before hearing their views, the Union is claiming a kind of omniscience human beings can’t have. It’s claiming to know that listening to and debating a bad argument is somehow worse than never hearing it. But we can’t know this. In fact, just the opposite is probably true. While limits on free speech don’t prevent people from developing bad ideas, they do keep the worst ideas from emerging for scrutiny and eventual destruction. By keeping someone from speaking at the Union in the future, we are preventing them from being challenged. Limits on free speech thus foster intellectual stagnation. 

Let’s be clear. We can’t be certain that every individual limit on free speech will detonate an authoritarian dynamite under our noses. But limits are dangerous, and the slope towards soft authoritarianism has always been slippery. Rolling back free speech could very well roll back democracy — whether in nations or in universities. Do we really want to gamble on our democracy?

The Union, then, should release last Thursday’s debate in full to the public, not just to members, as it is currently doing. The Union should abandon blacklists and embrace free and open debate, where no view goes unchallenged. Above all, the Union should support free speech, not smother it. Its values — and the values of any free, sceptical, and democratic society — demand nothing less.

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