All posts filed under: Free Speech

The New York Times and the Importance of Conclusion Neutrality

Earlier this month, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas wrote a controversial New York Times op-ed arguing that President Trump should send the US military to quell riots in cities across the country. The article produced a staff mutiny within the Times and a predictable and philosophically banal debate outside it. On one hand, there was a defense of a free press—in the pages of the Times itself, Bret Stephens wrote “it is not the duty of the paper to make people feel safe”—and on the other, a call for the Times not to provide platforms for “dangerous” ideas. This episode is representative of a longstanding debate over where the line around permissible opinion should be drawn by the media. When David Remnick disinvited Stephen K. Bannon from the New Yorker Festival, we witnessed the same argument between those who emphasize the hypothetical dangers of some speech, and those who believe open intellectual inquiry is the best means of ultimately overcoming “bad” ideas. Invariably missing from these debates is a thoughtful interrogation of the principle …

Barney Rosset and the Unending Struggle to Read Freely

It is by now a familiar truism that the Internet—and social media, in particular—has awarded the intolerant, the narrow-minded, and the censorious unprecedented power. To this challenge from below, publishers have, by and large, responded with dismaying timidity. Large multinational publishing firms have hastily withdrawn controversial titles and it has become distressingly common to read apologies issued to those vilifying their authors from the blogosphere, along with undertakings to “listen” and “do better” in the future. With these regrettable circumstances in mind, it is worth recalling the life, career, and example of renegade American publisher Barney Rosset. During the 1950s and 1960s, Rosset turned a tiny publishing company named Grove Press into one of America’s most provocative and effective instruments of free expression. He published some of the most controversial books of the 20th century and he never apologized for anything. In 1968, his offices were firebombed by anti-Castro Cuban reserve officers in the American Air Force because he had published excerpts from Che Guevara’s diaries in Grove’s magazine, the Evergreen Review. The same year, …

A Librarian’s Timeless Mission: Supporting Social Justice Through Freedom of Speech 

What follows is an adapted transcript of Vickery Bowles’ speech at the Empire Club in Toronto on March 9, 2020. Ms. Bowles is City Librarian at Toronto Public Library. I recently came across an annual report published by the Toronto Public Library (TPL) entitled “Reading in Toronto, 1942”. In that document, written in the midst of a war being fought to protect our democratic freedoms, then chief librarian of the TPL, Charles R. Sanderson, shared his view with members of the Toronto Library Board on the essential and enduring role of public libraries in supporting a democratic society. He wrote: “In our annual report of a year ago, we presented a statement of our faith in the public library as the pivot of democracy. That faith remains, and it can be restated by saying that if a community is permitted to think—and democracy rests its case on this—it must have books, and books mean libraries, and libraries, for most of us, mean public libraries. We still believe with full sincerity that…making it possible for [citizens] …

I’ve Been Fired. If You Value Academic Freedom, That Should Worry You

Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity. ~Chinua Achebe Until a week ago, I was a tenure-track assistant professor at a small college. Then I was fired. And although I am but one professor at one small college in one small town, I want to persuade you that, if you care about free speech and free inquiry in academia, you should be alarmed by my termination. My troubles began in October 2019 when I was invited to address an evolutionary group at the University of Alabama. I had decided that I would discuss human population variation, the hypothesis that human biological differences are at least partially produced by different environments selecting for different physical and psychological traits in their populations over time. I planned to defend this view as most consistent with a Darwinian understanding of the world. My first day in Tuscaloosa was uneventful. On the second day, I visited a class and had an enjoyable discussion with students about various topics, including human evolution and social …

Peter Singer and the Narrowing of Discourse

You might expect a row between a moral philosopher and a casino company to involve the former lecturing the latter on the ethics of profiting from gambling. But it is Peter Singer, sometimes called “the world’s most influential living philosopher,” who finds himself rebuked by SkyCity, New Zealand’s biggest promoter of poker machines. Singer had been booked to speak at a SkyCity venue as part of a ThinkInc tour to raise money for his charity The Life You Can Save, which seeks to reduce global poverty. But then an article appeared on New Zealand webzine Newshub reminding readers of Singer’s longstanding views on infanticide. “New Zealand’s disabled community is outraged a controversial Australian philosopher who justifies infanticide is being allowed to speak here,” Newshub reported. “Peter Singer, who’s been described as the most dangerous man in the world, has argued it’s ethical to give parents the option to euthanise babies with disabilities.” The report went on to compare Singer to ethnonationalists. This “wouldn’t be the first time a controversial speaker had been barred,” the site …

The Misguided Moral Panic About Racism in British Universities

According to one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted by the European Union, the U.K. is one of the least racist societies in the world, and what racism that remains is diminishing.1 These trends have been helped by the U.K.’s university system, which has educated millions of people across the globe and long been at the forefront of progressive social change and the promotion of equality of opportunity in Britain. However, in October 2019 the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a series of reports that purported to show that racism is widespread in Britain’s higher education sector, to an extent that is “seriously damaging to individuals and our society.” The reports argued that the problem was so large it could only be properly addressed by new laws and regulations. The reports triggered a moral panic, both among those who’d compiled them and among the sector’s leaders. Rebecca Hilsenrath, the Chief Executive of the EHRC, argued that universities were “not only out of touch with the extent that [racism] is occurring on their …

Behind the Great Firewall

There is a thriving community of Westerners in China making and posting videos on YouTube about their lives and experiences there. That may sound odd since YouTube, along with literally hundreds of the world’s other most popular websites, is banned in China. Anyone in the country wanting to connect to YouTube (and/or Facebook, Instagram, Google, Wikipedia, etc.) needs to purchase a Virtual Private Network (VPN); software for a phone or computer to disguise its IP address and which enables the user to circumvent the infamous Great Firewall of China. The legality of VPNs in China is another question altogether: selling a VPN is illegal, owning one is iffy, and using a VPN is ubiquitous–but also draws suspicion. Exact numbers are hard to come by but estimates suggest that more than 30 percent of internet users in China have a VPN installed on at least one of their devices. Like so many things in China, legality is often a question of circumstance and usually not even the most important question. YouTubers in China run the gamut …

Demoted and Placed on Probation

It all started in June 2018, when Quillette published my article, “Why Women Don’t Code,” and things picked up steam when Jordan Peterson shared a link to the article on his Twitter account. A burst of outrage and press coverage followed which I discussed in a follow-up piece. The original article was one of the ten most read pieces published by Quillette in 2018, and continues to generate interest. A recent YouTube video about it has been viewed over 120,000 times, as of this writing: In his tweet promoting my article, Peterson took issue with one of my claims. I had written that I thought I could survive at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering where I work. Peterson disagreed: Make no mistake about it: the Damore incident has already established a precedent. Watch what you say. Or else. https://t.co/3Zzg1g2y9C — Dr Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) June 19, 2018 As it turns out, Peterson was right. My position is not tenured and when my current three-year appointment came up for review …

How Bitcoin Can Protect Free Speech in the Digital Age

Think about what happens when you buy a newspaper at a local cafe with cash. The shopkeeper takes your paper money, and gives you the item. They don’t know your name, address, phone number, email, or what you bought yesterday. They are not collecting any data about you. Until now, this level of financial privacy was perfectly normal. Today, cash is disappearing. In the UK, just 42 percent of transactions are still performed using cash. In America, it’s down to 32 percent. In Sweden, 20 percent. And in South Korea, only 14 percent. In some urban areas—for example, Stockholm or Beijing—electronic and touchless payments are virtually everywhere. In an increasingly cashless world, citizens are losing their privacy and, by extension, their civil liberties. When you buy a subscription to a political magazine like this one, you almost certainly do so with a credit card or through a platform like PayPal. These payment processors collect data about you that can be sold, leaked, hacked, or handed over to a curious government. When you make an electronic …

Mark Zuckerberg and the Changing Civil Rights Movement

On October 17, 2019, defending Facebook’s generally hands-off policy with respect to regulating the content of political advertisements, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the podium at Georgetown University and delivered an eloquent defense of free expression. In his address, he linked speech to the historic pursuit of justice for the powerless, and made reference to his experience as a student immediately following the invasion of Iraq. This fed his later conviction that open forums for discourse are essential to the advocacy of political causes: Back then, I was building an early version of Facebook for my community, and I got to see my beliefs play out at smaller scale. When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they organized more social events, started more businesses, and even challenged some established ways of doing things on campus. It taught me that while the world’s attention focuses on major events and institutions, the bigger story is that most progress in our lives comes from regular people having more of a voice. This …