Monckton and Notre Dame: a case for free speech?

Brian Martin

Published in The Conversation, 30 June 2011. The article text only is given here. The Conversation version includes many comments.

Is it wise to try to block a speech by Christopher Monckton? Are there other options?

Monckton, a well known climate change sceptic, was invited to speak at Notre Dame University in Fremantle on 30 June. Some supporters of mainstream climate science opposed allowing him this speaking opportunity.

Monckton's critics claim he is unqualified and has no credibility on climate change, making his speaking engagement an embarrassment to the university. The trouble is, this seems like censorship.

This is a recurring dilemma. Should those with outrageous or even dangerous views be offered platforms to speak? Or should Holocaust deniers, supporters of paedophilia, critics of vaccination, advocates of racial inequality - and climate sceptics - be censored in some way?

It is useful to examine the issue from three perspectives: the arguments for free speech, pragmatism, and alternative options.

What about the defence of free speech?

Dictatorial regimes regularly shut down critical media and muzzle outspoken opponents, sometimes through imprisonment, torture and murder. Free speech is a threat to tyranny and hence is worth defending.

Many large corporations are intolerant of free speech among employees: outspoken criticism, especially of management and when voiced outside the organisation, can lead to dismissal. Critics on the outside may suffer reprisals too. Scientists whose work challenges powerful corporations sometimes lose grants or are denied jobs.

What does this have to do with Monckton? His criticism of climate science serves a powerful vested interest, namely carbon-intensive industries. His livelihood is not at risk, so why should his right to speak be defended?

The argument is that free speech needs to be guarded as a general principle. If exceptions are made, these exceptions become avenues for censorship and are most likely to be invoked against those with less power.

If Monckton is prevented from speaking, why not all sorts of others?

Another argument for free speech is that it provides a basis for better informed decision-making. The idea is to let all express their views, even when they have little credibility with experts, and thereby enable an open engagement with and testing of ideas.

Are Monckton's views really so persuasive that it's necessary to prevent him speaking, at a university or anywhere else?

Any publicity is good publicity: censorship can backfire

Pragmatically, censorship is risky because it can give greater attention to the views being censored. Trying to block Monckton from speaking may lead to more publicity for his views.

Because free speech is seen as valuable, censorship is viewed negatively. Censors are seen as attacking a valued principle, sometimes creating sympathy for those censored.

Powerful groups engaged in censorship, such as repressive governments, use a variety of techniques to inhibit outrage from their actions.

They operate behind the scenes, to hide their efforts at censorship. They denigrate their targets.

They explain their actions as defence of higher principles, such as national security or public health. They use courts and agencies to legitimise policies. They intimidate opponents.

Sometimes, however, these techniques are not sufficient to dampen outrage, and censorship backfires.

McDonald's sued two British anarchists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, over their leaflet "What's wrong with McDonald's?" and used all these techniques to inhibit outrage.

However, Steel, Morris and their supporters were able to frame the legal action as censorship, causing many more people to become aware of the claims in the leaflet. The result was a massive public relations disaster for McDonald's.

Those trying to block Monckton can readily be labelled as censors. However, unlike governments, Monckton's critics have few resources to inhibit outrage from their actions such as using intimidation or courts and agencies.

Instead of operating behind the scenes, through inside connections with Notre Dame, they used an open letter, virtually guaranteeing publicity about their efforts.

The case of David Irving is instructive. Irving, a well known historian, is widely seen as a Holocaust denier. He twice visited Australia in the 1980s, receiving relatively little public attention. Since the 1990s, the Australian government has denied Irving entry to the country, resulting in much more media comment than if he had been allowed to visit and speak.

What are the other options?

A speaking engagement by someone with contrary views can be used as an opportunity to present one's own views; for example in leaflets, posters and tweets. Monckton's striking claims provide an opportunity to present evidence about and dispel misconceptions about climate change.

It may also be useful to point out vested interests. Monckton's visit is sponsored by companies with a vested interest in challenging climate science.

Yet another option is to ignore Monckton. If he really lacks credibility, why give him so much attention? And why risk turning him into a martyr by trying to censor him?

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