Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927 that the response to ‘evil’ speech is not suppression or punishment but more speech.
Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. It includes freedom to express controversial or unpopular opinion, even if offensive. Obnoxious, nasty and mean-spirited comment is undesirable but still protected.
Same for conspiracy theories, manifestly false information and utter lies. Thousands of people pronounce the earth flat. No democratic country dreams of prosecuting flat-earthers.
In a young democracy like ours, where violent suppression of free speech remains an indelible scar in our mind, free speech is even more highly treasured. Even when abused to spread disinformation, it remains sacrosanct.
But even freedom of expression has its limits. The laws of defamation and incitement to violence still apply. In some countries, holocaust denial is a crime. In these countries, the potential harm caused by holocaust denial is deemed serious enough to deny free speech.
Many academics engage in public discourse on subjects outside their area of academic expertise. When academics express their views publicly, they are entitled to the same right to freedom of expression as anybody else.
They can say whatever they like, within the limits of the law, including utter nonsense. They can be as rude and insolent, obnoxious and coarse. But should they?
The American Association of University Professors recommends that “when they speak or write in public, they should show restraint and indicate that they are not speaking for their institution”. They don’t speak as academics in these situations but as private individuals – that should be made clear.
Simon Mercieca blurs the distinction between Mercieca the private blogger and Mercieca the university lecturer. When Matthew Caruana Galizia posted a sarcastic comment in reference to Mercieca’s statements, Mercieca retorted “Caruana Galizia today used abortive language against university lecturers. I remind Matthew Caruana Galizia that lecturers are chosen after a public call by a selection board”.
But Mercieca went further: “I believe the university should take action on this statement.” Humourless self-pity is not a good look. But there is no legislation against it.
By presenting himself as the university lecturer in order to defend against comments relating to his personal blogs, Mercieca abuses his academic status. In dragging the university into the fray to defend himself against a sarcastic remark, he fails to distinguish between his roles. It also betrays his intolerance and desire to gag those expressing contrary views.
By kneading university into his personal blogs, Mercieca gives the university’s reputation a beating.
Firstly, because some of his aired views are not based on fact but on conspiracy theories of pure fiction. The very ethos of university is to contribute to the body of evidence-based knowledge, not to dismantle it and promote fantasy. The view that Bill Gates created the COVID virus for financial gain is not based on fact.
Mercieca’s vengeful fits of hysterics are not consistent with the university’s core values- Kevin Cassar
Secondly, Mercieca’s mean-spirited comments and vengeful fits of hysterics are not consistent with the university’s core value of tolerance and debate. Noam Chomsky never alluded to the personal matrimonial history of his critics. That is the tactic of the schoolyard bully, not the open-mindedness of an academic.
If Mercieca published fictitious fantasies, bizarre outlandish claims and ridiculously laughable statements laced with obnoxious insults in his personal capacity, he would be one more offensive balmy conspiracy theorist. When he hides behind his academic post invoking protection by his university, he drags the university into disrepute.
Does he deserve to be sacked from his post? Certainly not. But the university has the right and responsibility to make it absolutely clear that Mercieca’s bizarre and offensive comments are entirely his and not those of the university.
When an academic at a Californian university called Barbara Bush “a witch” (now where have we heard that before), the university informed the public that the academic would not be disciplined but strongly disavowed the speech as contrary to the core values of the university.
Academics must be honest enough not to brandish their academic status to bolster their credibility or to deflect criticism. Less so to threaten.
In their professional work, they enjoy academic freedom. But that does not diminish obligations to meet duties and responsibilities. Within their field, they are bound by ethical and professional conduct policies. Their research and publications must be evidence-based. They must exercise ethical and professional judgement.
When they fail to do so, academics can and do get fired. The university must determine whether there are grounds for action when academics’ behaviour falls below standard.
Discrimination, harassment (including sexual), creating a ‘poisoned environment’ and incompetence are reasons for which tenured academics get sacked.
When legal action is taken by other entities against academics, the university is not relieved of its own responsibility to act when basic principles are violated. An academic who propagates blatant falsehoods risks, and some would argue deserves, dismissal on grounds of incompetence and academic failure.
Outside the academic field, the academic becomes the private citizen and such oversight is not warranted. But it would be unlikely for somebody with an analytical mind and a disciplined scientific approach while on campus to suddenly transform into an abrasive unthinking loudmouth on his personal blog and vice-versa. We don’t change our brain when we perform different roles.
So should academics writing and speaking publicly be sacked for spewing falsehoods and loutish insults? Definitely not. They have every right, like other citizens, to utter all sorts of offensive nonsense and unsubstantiated drivel.
Should they? Absolutely not.
What they should do when commenting publicly, however, is make it explicitly clear that they do not represent their university. And their university should not hesitate to disavow them when they drag it into hostile personal vendettas and when they betray its core values – tolerance and rational pursuit of the truth.
PS: These are my own views and do not represent the views of any university.
Kevin Cassar is professor of surgery and former PN candidate.
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