GUEST COLUMN: Unharmful, well-reasoned free speech for all


Good reasoning demands good reasons. Two features help to make reasons good: Truth and relations. 

Relations between reasons determines an instance of reasoning's logical strength. (Premises are the reasons that support, and conclusions are the things supported.) Arguments with premises that make their conclusion probable are logically stronger than arguments with premises that have no connection to their conclusion. And arguments with premises that guarantee the truth of their conclusion are logically stronger than arguments with premises that make their conclusion probable. 

Addison Cowling’s argument in his Central Michigan Life guest column: "Free speech for all, even racists and transphobes,” lacks an explicit argument. As I can tell, Cowling’s arguments has premises that lack direct connection to their conclusion. If that is so, Cowling’s argument is weak. 

In the column "What your opinions actually mean to us," Editor-in-Chief Emma Dale writes, “A guest column is usually written about a belief or a topic someone is passionate about. They have opinions that they want to share about topics we haven’t covered. Although it is an opinion, writers are still required to provide facts and a decent argument [emphasis mine] to back up their opinions.” Towards the end of her column, Dale writes, “So you tell me: When should I tell a fellow student that their opinion is unpublishable and take that voice away? You tell me where you think free speech ends and should be silenced.” 

If Dale is right, that writers must provide at least decent arguments, this seems like an already-present criterion for determining to publish a fellow student's opinion. 

Several philosophy courses at Central Michigan University explicitly teach about good reasoning: Critical Thinking in Everyday Life (PHL 105), Introduction to Logic (PHL 140), Applied Logic (PHL 141), Reasoning and Probability (PHL 145QR), and Intermediate Logic (PHL 340). In these courses, students can learn what kind of reasoning makes opinions good or bad. Even if Cowling is right, that CMU should foster all free speech and promote the exchange of ideas, surely it’s better to have well-reasoned free speech to better promote the exchange of ideas. 

With that said, it seems that Cowling aims to establish that CMU should foster all free speech and promote the exchange of ideas. Consider what I take to be the most charitable interpretation and strongest formulation of Cowling’s argument: 

1. CMU should either ban offensive speech or foster all free speech and promote the exchange of ideas. 

2. If the Supreme Court precedent prevents banning offensive speech, CMU cannot ban offensive speech. 

3. Supreme Court precedent prevents banning offensive speech. 

4. Anything that can’t be done shouldn’t be done. 

5. Therefore, CMU should foster all free speech and promote the exchange of ideas. 

As I have stated Cowling’s argument, if all of the premises are true, the conclusion is true.

Unfortunately for Cowling’s argument, not all of the premises are true. The first premise declares that CMU should pursue one of two extremes: banning offensive speech or promoting all free speech. Should CMU promote Hitler’s anti-Semitic speech, for example? No, it should, unequivocally, without any doubt, not promote Hitler’s anti-Semitic speech. Some speech should not be promoted, and this is obvious. 

Further, to support the second premise, Cowling appeals to three court cases. All three cases, however, discuss the constitutionality of Congress abridging the freedom of speech. Although CMU cannot legislatively abridge the freedom of speech, the university can nevertheless establish speech codes. Revisiting speech codes seems like a viable option. For these reasons, among others, Cowling’s argument falters. 

At his column's conclusion, Cowling writes, “Everyone should get thicker skin or don’t provide a whiteboard to write on and marker to write with if you would have a hard time dealing with something similar.” 

Instead of offering remarks that mirror jeers to get over problems, we should denounce all offensive speech. No one should have to debate about unchosen aspects of their identity and their worth. Demanding that historically and institutionally afflicted individuals continue to debate these things seems unnecessarily emotionally harmful. 

Avoiding unnecessary emotional harm seems more valuable to me than performative engagement in bad reasoning.