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On The Wharton Saga

Debating Free Speech

In their op-ed in Business Standard, Vivek Deheija and Karuna Nundy argue,

So the Wharton affair isn’t at all comparable to, say, the cancellation of Salman Rushdie’s appearance at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival due to the presumed threat of violence from mobs gathering outside the venue. There is a world of difference between boycotts and peaceful protest on the one hand and thuggery and the threat of violence on the other. When mobs intimidate those with unpopular views and governments fail to guarantee individual freedom, it is threats of violence they are failing to address. No such threat was present or implied in this case.

Deheija and Nundy are broadly right. The University of Pennsylvania professors were well within their rights in protesting against the invitation to Mr. Modi; it was indeed an expression of free speech.

However, Deheija and Nundy may be guilty of being overtly influenced by how speech is impeded in India: Threats of violence followed by ‘spontaneous’ outrage. But among mature democracies, that is an exception rather than the rule. There are other less obvious ways in which expression can be curtailed.

Take for instance a Kashmiri separatist leader who may be unpopular because of his views and is invited to an Indian university. Leave aside the violence argument for a moment. The university may be forced to rescind its invitation due to popular opinion or because it is concerned that association with a controversial figure may delegitimize it in popular opinion. And there may be more insidious factors at work. For instance, the faculty may fear losing research grants and other support from the state especially if the government is opposed to that particular individual. So even without any threat of violence, speech can be chilled in many different ways. Legitimacy ultimately is a contested opinion. And we should be wary of those who claim to be arbiters of acceptable opinion.

That is why universities should always err on the side of more speech—and not less. Universities are a forum for learning and open discussion—they benefit from hearing diverse opinions some of whom may be disagreeable to large segments of the population. It is disconcerting and arguably harmful when universities fail to appreciate their important role in the larger social discourse.

Now, it is certainly true that University of Pennsylvania administration may deserve a larger share of the blame than the professors who, after all, were only exercising their right to protest. Nevertheless, as scholar Ashutosh Varshney correctly points out, even the professors failed to understand and appreciate the liberal milieu they inhabit and should further nurture.

More substantively, it would be difficult to sustain the view that there is only one correct way to respond to such a situation. Universities must weigh the benefits to the campus community of engaging with an interlocutor, perhaps one that is disliked by many, against the costs of so doing. In this case, allowing a keynote address on economic development by Mr Modi would involve legitimising, with honour and endorsement, a controversial and polarising figure.

Again, that is broadly correct. Nevertheless, let’s go back and think about Salman Rushdie. Indubitably, Mr. Rushdie is a highly controversial figure and is disliked by large segments of the Muslim population—and not just in India. In that case, couldn’t it be argued that by inviting Mr. Rushdie the Jaipur Literature Festival is ‘ legitimising, with honour and endorsement, a controversial and polarising figure?’  Taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that only non-controversial figure should be hosted otherwise there is a risk of legitimizing them by mere association. It is a dangerous argument with the potential to adversely affect free expression.  Surely, it can’t be Deheija and Nundy’s argument that literature festival and universities are merely an excuse for backslapping bonhomie—and not a platform for serious discussion and strong disagreements.

Or as Ashok Malik argues in The Hindu,

 It presumes that an American campus — likely one based on the East Coast or in Berkeley — is the international arbiter of decency, values and good taste and can, with the magisterial flick of a switch, turn off the intellectual oxygen for a disagreeable individual and render him a non-person. [link]

Further, Deheija and Nundy’s argument about the treatment meted out to President  Ahmadinejad by the Columbia University is a red herring. Why should any speech by Mr. Modi be immediately countered by his opponents and that too on the same platform? Indian and foreign newspapers frequently feature op-eds against Mr. Modi. They are under no obligation to give Mr. Modi’s supporters an equal opportunity  to critique the critics—and mostly they don’t. Or should each appearance by Salman Rushdie be balanced by a Muslim leader explaining why he finds his views so odious? This isn’t an exercise in free speech; it is political correctness masquerading as one! If anything, the farcical treatment of President  Ahmadinejad (a most disagreeable man!) by the Columbia University itself illustrated how speech can be inhibited by factors others than violence.

Finally, this isn’t really about Mr. Modi. As a powerful chief minister and a prospective prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Modi has ample opportunities to exercise his right to free speech. But some other equally controversial figures may not enjoy the bully pulpit which is Mr. Modi’s privilege. And that should worry those who uphold free speech not only as a right but as an ennobling feature of democratic discourse.

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