Ryan, Phil. 2001. Stanley Fish’s case for speech regulation: A critique. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 31, no. 2: 167-82.

Stanley Fish (1994) offers one of the best-known defences of speech regulation against free speech “purists.” Fish argues that some limits on freedom of speech are defensible, a modest thesis to which this author has no objection. But he grounds this thesis upon a quite dangerous foundation, one that leaves it unclear why one should care about freedom at all. I will examine three arguments advanced by Fish: (a) free speech is a mere means to other ends, hence the defence of free speech is a disguised defence of some “subtantive” agenda; (b) formal speech regulation does not limit free speech, since speech is always regulated; (c) a university is just another workplace, and workplace speech is always controlled. Following Fish, I will focus on campus speech issues, though many issues raised here are relevant to society in general.

Given Fish’s position, is there anything wrong in principle with a McCarthyite attack on the university, or any other attack on university freedom that the future may bring? “Someone is always going to be restricted next, and it is your job to make sure that the someone is not you” (1994, p. 111). If you are suppressed, Fish tells us, stop whining: you have simply failed to do “your job.” But the cynical assertion that “the strong do what they have power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” has always been appealing… to the strong, to those who “thought that nothing could go wrong with them” (Thucydides, para. 5.89, 4.65). It is hard to know why this cynicism should be so appealing to a university sector that is so evidently fragile.

Fish himself would scoff at speculation concerning the long-term implications of his views. He is a “localist,” he proudly declares, without a care for the future: “I tend not to think about or worry about anything more in the future than two hours hence” (1994, p. 298). His writings on free speech, like all his actions, are meant merely to address “the local moment.” But the printed word cannot declare its own “Best before” date, or establish restrictions on its own usage. The “children of the mind,” Tawney noted, resemble those of the body: “if their parents could foresee their future development, it would sometimes break their hearts” (1954, p. 81).