Tuesday, April 24, 2007

This Blog Believes that the Right of Property Trumps the Right of Free Speech

The recent decision by Clare College, Cambridge, to censor a student magazine, Clareification, because of its perceived offence to "women, Jews, Christians and Muslims" has caused much debate.

I support their decision and their right to censor their students who publish inflammatory material likely to cause offence. However i disagree completely with their reason for doing so.

Clare College issued a statement last week declaring that

"The college is now arranging a meeting for next term to discuss the problem of maintaining free speech while avoiding offence".

Let us hope that this meeting lasts no more than 60 seconds. The conclusion of this meeting should be that an integral part of maintaining free speech is maintaining the right to offend.

However, the reason i support the College is that they, and only they, have the right to decide what to say in publications written in their name. Clareification is not the official College magazine but it is written by their students, it features the Clare College name and it receives funding from the College. It is fair to say that the publication is the private property of Clare College and not of its contributors.

And i believe, without equivocation, that private property rights trump the rights to freedom of expression.

As Oliver Kamm opines on his blog,

"If you ask me to display in my window an election poster for your party and I decline, I am not abridging your freedom of expression."

If i go away for a fortnight and i ask a fellow blogger to post articles in keeping with the beliefs of this blog in my absence, and i discover on my return that this blogger has written an article questioning the Holocaust and that the Jews had it coming, i would remove the article. However if this blogger had posted this article on their own blog, i would defend their right to say this to the hilt, no matter how repulsive i found their views.

A host of defenders of freedom of expression, for instance the pro-free speech blogs Pub Philosopher and Harry's Place, have made the following points in defence of the students. These points and my responses to them are outlined below.

i) Students should be able to satirise anything they like.

Yes, they should. All students should be free to say anything they like (unless they are inciting or advocating violence) provided they use their own platforms (blogs/magazines). This includes racist, homphobic and other bigoted views.

ii) Religion is a matter of choice and therefore should not be protected by free speech laws.

Agreed. Religion, unlike, say skin colour, is a matter of personal choice and therefore does not need to be protected. I am a Christian and believe in Jesus and in God. Many people ridicule my beliefs. I would wish that you do not but i would not demand it. I would be horrified if my government banned you from ridiculing me.

iii) Clare College receives government money and therefore is not a private institution.

No. It does receive government money (Cambridge University as a whole relies on government monies for 66% of its revenue) but so do private corporations. I also receive government funding (for example childcare benefits) but i am very much a private individual. Clare College is a private institution that has to comply with certain government regulations but also has to operate in the very competitive market for tertiary education. It has the right to decide its own terms of operation.

iv) Presumably, if a Muslim owned shopping mall in Denmark had forbidden all bookshops and news-stands from selling copies of Jyllands-Posten, that would be OK with you.

Yup. And if Tesco decided to take a stand on the Danish cartoons and stop selling Danish bacon, i would have no issue with this. If you disagree with their stand, you are free to take your business elsewhere.

v) Cambridge University should be a bastion of free speech.

Why? Says who? Cambridge University is a provider of tertiary education competing with institutions such as Oxford, Harvard and MIT for the brightest young minds. There is no pre-ordained law stating that it has to believe in freedom of speech. It's entirely up to the University as to its own beliefs. If you don't like what they stand for, then don't go there. It may decide that for credibility reasons, it needs to be an upholder of the right to free speech, but that's a call for the University to make. It merely has to ensure it complies with UK legislation.

Interestingly, the waters are muddied once again by Cambridge University's central mission statement , which states just two Core Values;

The University's core values are freedom of thought and expression and freedom from discrimination.

As Ayn Rand stated in Atlas Shrugged,

"Just as man can't exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one's rights into reality, to think, to work and to keep the results, which means:the right of property".

The right of property trumps the right to free expression.