Freedom of speech the basis of study in Ramsay courses1 July 2019
By Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney
Can we maintain the right to express our own views while limiting the rights of others to do the same? When does free expression become an incitement to riot, an oppression of the vulnerable or a danger to national security?
Since 2017, the Ramsay Centre has been in discussion with several Australian universities about prospective partnerships to offer degrees focused on the “great books” and other texts of Western civilisation, from Homer to Heaney, taking in classical, biblical, medieval, early modern and modern sources.
While we may have taken a slower path to realising these partnerships than we anticipated, there is much to look forward to.
The new bachelor of arts in Western civilisation at the University of Wollongong will accept its first enrolments in 2020, with 30 full undergraduate scholarships to be offered each year, and 10 academic positions. We are progressing towards other partnerships.
We also expect next year to unveil a suite of generous postgraduate scholarships for Australian students to pursue further study at prestigious overseas universities.
This slow but steady progress is good news for us all, not least the students and academic staff of under-resourced humanities departments: the places we rely on most to remind us that what we often take to be self-evident, or think we have just discovered, has its roots in ancient insights, or is the outcome of centuries of struggle and progress.
Our notions of tragedy and truth, state and citizen, beauty and good, nature and art: all these have long and distinctive pedigrees, and are deeply constitutive of modern attitudes.
Perhaps this is most true in the case of our liberal-democratic freedoms: of speech, assembly, religion, the press.
Daily the local and international news reminds us that these freedoms are under perpetual challenge.
In Australia, voices across the political spectrum, from Alan Jones to Richard Flanagan, have spoken out in defence of a free press. In Hong Kong, millions of people, included among them many students, have assembled in the streets in defence of the rule of law.
Good for them. Use it or lose it: freedom is the birthright each generation inherits, but also holds in trust for those to come. Our sense of responsibility for the trust is strengthened if we also know it as an inheritance. But it’s a complex inheritance, and we are inconsistent in our attitudes to it. Students protesting against contentious campus speakers, for example, or governments denying visas to controversial visitors, could look across the centuries to John Stuart Mill, John Milton or Thomas Aquinas.
In On Liberty (1859), Mill argued “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered”.
But he also invoked the “harm principle”, according to which the prevention of harm to others is the only purpose for which power can be “rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised society”. So how much harm can be done by a speaker expressing a contentious view? When does the exercise of power over speech become illiberal?
Milton’s argument in Areopagitica (1644) for “unlicensed printing”, for the freedom “to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience”, is a treasure of English prose as well as one of the greatest of all defences of liberty – and of great books, come to that – which he said “do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them”.
But as a Puritan writing in the shadow of civil war, Milton did not think this freedom should be extended to Roman Catholics, whom he saw as a threat to his nation’s existence.
So did he believe in freedom of speech? Is his position so different from the pre-modern attitude of Aquinas, the soul of Aristotelian good sense in so many respects, and of course a Roman Catholic, who in the mid-13th century argued that heretics posed a threat to social order and indeed the very souls of the population, and should be suppressed, by force if necessary?
Does freedom of expression have exceptions? If so, is it genuinely free?
Students might be encouraged to ask such questions in some university courses. They might perhaps encounter Mill, or Milton, or even Aquinas, at least in passing, in different majors. But asking such questions through reading all three of these “living intellects” in the course of one degree: this is the kind of thing we hope to enable a few students to do, and when the word gets around, maybe a lot more will want to.
Source: Australian Financial Review, to see article click here.