Saturday, January 15, 2011
Peto's Freedom of Speech
When the University of Toronto chose to accept and then publish Peto's M.A. thesis on the internet, it thereby gave its warrant that the thesis meets scholarly standards. A number of scholars and journalists, me included, objected: the thesis, we said, cannot reasonably be held to meet any academic standards, no matter how relaxed. The response from U. of T. officials has been quite simple. In endorsing Ms. Peto's work, they say, they have done no more than uphold freedom of speech on campus. The implication, of course, is that we, the critics, are enemies of freedom of speech, or Fascists. Well, thanks a lot.
(Statements by U. of T. officials can be found here and here. There is also a somewhat similar statement by Professor Anna Shternshis, which I have answered here.)
I must say that I found it disconcerting to see high-ranking academics play a freedom-of-speech card with so little attention to what this concept -- or rather this group of concepts -- involves. At the very least, it is essential to distinguish between the freedom of speech that we all enjoy as citizens, in the public sphere, and the much more limited freedoms we enjoy in our more limited roles in private spheres, say as employees, or as students and professors.
In the public sphere, these freedoms are often referred to as freedoms of expression. The basic document in the United States is the First Amendment, and in Canada the much more recent Charter of Rights. These documents have been interpreted many times by courts of each country. They guarantee broad rights to freedom of expression, and, indeed, they define the great difference between free countries on the one hand, like Canada and the United States, and dictatorships on the other. But, as interpreted by the courts, such freedoms are not without limits. "Freedom of speech," for example, does not allow you to "falsely shout fire in a [crowded] theater" (Schenck v. US, 1919), nor to incite violence (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969). Nor, of course, are we free, in either country, to libel our neighbor, or to place fraudulent advertising. In Canada, there is also a prohibition against hate speech. Such limitations warn us that when we seek to defend any given expression under the principle of freedom of speech, we defend that which is defensible by this principle, not that which is not. We need to be aware of the limits.
In any case, none of the criticism of the U. of T. in this case has contested Peto's right to an expression of her opinions in the public sphere. That is her democratic right, and she should exercise it in public.
When we go outside the public sphere, the legal protections of free speech are much narrower, although of course we still expect, broadly speaking, to enjoy the benefits of living in free countries. But there are other principles that come into play that may be in tension with maximum freedom of speech. For instance, an employer can expect loyalty from his employees; a Coca Cola salesman is not allowed to tell his customers that Pepsi is better. And a university must expect its teachers and students to pursue academic excellence.
In academia, as the U. of T. officials ceaselessly point out, we need what is called "academic freedom." Scholarship could hardly exist if individual scholars were constrained to voice agreement with the theories of their superiors. Or with the political doctrines favored by politicians. Or with the conventional tastes and attitudes of the community. All this is well understood and is not contested by anyone that I know of.
But the U. of T. officials give an entirely new twist to the whole idea of academic freedom. Their argument, at least as it is presented in their statements on the Peto case, is that the principle of academic freedom overrides all considerations of scholarship; that it dictates that any thesis whatever, as long as it gets the approval of the thesis advisor(s), is protected by the principle of academic freedom. Are there limits to this idea ? Again and again I have asked them whether it's OK to present a thesis that the moon is made of cheese, and again and again they have refused to answer. The message we get here, clearly, is that freedom is all, scholarship is nothing. At this stage, the stance of U. of T. officials can hardly be considered coherent. Do these people really believe what they say ?
Professor Shternshis has suggested that Peto's is probably not the only thesis devoid of scholarly value that has been accepted, and that, therefore, a criticism of her work amounts to some sort of selective prosecution. I agree that the petulant hate in Peto's writing, in addition to her lack of scholarship, has helped to bring her to public attention. And yes, I also agree, very strongly, that the Peto case is not the only one that needs public scrutiny. But if there is anything unfairly selective about the attention given to Peto, surely the remedy lies in more scrutiny of more theses rather than in just putting up with this one. (See For OISE, the Peto thesis was no aberration)