Free Speech Absolutist, Vice Chancellor Adam Habib Assaulted Academic Freedoms

2015-07-05 09:04

Students and staff at universities should have the right to opinions, no matter how silly. Wits vice chancellor Adam Habib’s response to a student’s outrageous remarks on Hitler should not be punitive as this inhibits academic freedom.

Early this year professor John McAdams was fired by Marquette University for writing a blog post the university characterized as inaccurate and irresponsible. The post was his analysis of an issue between a tutor and a student over gay marriage rights. McAdams’ post advocated all involved to be open-minded and explore all matters without ideological or religious restraint.

He was fired for having an opinion. The university said he was sacked for publicly (blog) naming the tutor involved after being warned not to do so. Many believe it was McAdams insistence that the tutor should have allowed all views including anti-gay marriage views that led to his dismissal.

University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was fired in 2007 after an uproar over remarks in his 2001 essay in which he compared 9/11 World Trade Centre Twin Towers victims to Adolf Eichmann. He wrote, “They were ‘little Eichmann’s" (as those who banally conduct their duties in the service of evil), complicit in an Iraqi Holocaust occasioned by the first Gulf War.”

Churchill offered a political opinion over the Wall Street bankers as complicit in the Iraq war for having funded presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush into the White House. Of course this view is disputable as Al Qaeda attack had little to do with Iraq.

Universities seem to be perpetuating an unprecedented intolerance to plurality of ideas. Ideas are being produced with conformity or else you are fired.

I am a proponent of free speech with limitations, I am not an irresponsible advocate of free speech and have always been dismayed by Charlie Hebdo’s ride of free speech as a license to freely offend deeply. There are limits to everything. With each freedom comes responsibility and the right to free speech is not a right to insult, degrade, dehumanize or emotionally harm another through speech. Clearly, I am not a free speech absolutist.

A Charlie Hebdo type caricature done in the confines of a classroom at a tertiary institution for in-depth analysis and study of all matters involved (not for free publication) is in my mind acceptable with reason. How else do we learn the depth of its meaning to society.

Academic freedom, in my mind, should hold free speech at the same level as that granted to legislatures and whistleblowers. The belief that free speech rights on campuses should include the right to speak offensively must be firmly cultivated. There must be a special or qualified immunity guided by the country’s hates speech laws.

As much as Alistair Sparks offended me at the DA Federal Congress this year, when he announced his admiration for Prime Minister Verwoerd, in the confines of such events, parties ought to be able to have free speech on such matters. It assists the electorate and benefits those who must choose from the sway of political parties. It is henceforth clear; the DA associated itself with the smarts of apartheid architect Verwoerd and even its recent former leader Mrs. Helen Zille was likened to Verwoerd by DA ideologist Mr Sparks. Now a choice can be made.

When FW de Klerk went to CNN in recent years to talk about apartheid. He said apartheid was a good idea and blacks positively benefitted from it. Should CNN ban de Klerk or report him to the UN Human Rights Organization?

With Sparks and de Klerk relating to an evil against humanity as “clever” or “good”, what would Professor Habib have done had these been said within his precinct?

We should be shocked when vice chancellor Adam Habib of the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg calls for a punitive investigation against a young man, student Mcebo Dlamini. Dlamini clearly uttered what I find to be outrageous remarks; some may find these remarks intriguing, or angering. They may have caused many people to pause in disgust or contemplation. Habib labeled Dlamini’s blog post as, “racist and offensive to the extreme”. He may be correct.

On radio and television, Dlamini has gone on to defend his bizarre, “I love Hitler” remark. He says, after being pressed to explain further, “Hitler was a foreigner in Germany and was able to get the overwhelming German populace to follow him and he started an industrial revolution for Germany”; and “I love his organizational style.” Qualifying what this means he said, “Everybody has a bad side. I think the Israeli government is causing the same atrocities in Palestine as Hitler did to Jews”.

So, he accepts that Hitler committed atrocities and he likens him to the Israeli government, which he says he dislikes. But he loves Hitler or maybe a part of Hitler. Clearly he is a confused young man who needs to be intellectually engaged, challenged and educated – not reported to the vice chancellor’s ‘quasi-judicial body’.

Professors and scholars are both at schools because they don’t know the truth and are there to seek it, search and question, to probe and test, to be right and wrong, and wrong some more.

The threat to Dlamini by Professor Habib is a threat to academic freedom itself as students and tenured staff will henceforth be restrained from having free opinions, however silly. The only thing to be achieved is the entrenchment of fear, resentment and even the young mind holding on to ill thought as his only way to show or flex his wimpy power.

The type of student and staff at elite school should be ones that learn to speak freely, to question and hypothesize on varying subjects including ones we may not like to hear or see.

Habib himself tweeted on the 19 March 2015; “The University encourages open debate and we do not control or determine the speakers of any of our students societies.” 

On the 20th March 2015; Habib continued on twitter; “Freedom of speech is allowing people you do not agree with to be heard as well. Otherwise it is not the real right.”

Now, what had changed from two months ago to now? Was the intolerance heat too much to bear for Habib? Was he turned? Or indeed, he evolved on the issue of being an absolutist?

‘John Galliano-ing’ a young (irresponsible) man will not help society but entrench the idea that offensive language is treated differently depending on who the harmed is.

Habib has a tendency to shoot from the hip and say all sorts of things that usually appear less thought through for an elite academic of his stature. He will be best advised to get Jewish students’ representatives and Dlamini to meet over a lunch to discuss matters instead of adding to the hysteria, justified or not. The university should also realize that student cohesion should be top priority. Dual excursions to the local Jewish museum and Freedom Park would go a long way in shaping young minds towards a better tomorrow.

Simply put, Habib cannot fight a passive injustice by perpetuating a gross one, one that could have severe unintended censorship consequences. It is also never hurtful to be deliberate and tell stakeholders that the matter will be attended to and investigated without further public condemnations.

Resultant reaction and more bizarre and unacceptable utterances that Dlamini makes in public or private should henceforth be blamed on his teachers for failing him. They did not teach, they called the law at the school.

Hitler is one of the most evil men to have walked the earth, so was Stalin, if not worse, Verwoerd too. All these men disliked opinions and ideas that they found offensive to them, it was the firing squad or torturous death. The Difference between Habib’s reaction to those of Hitler’s or Stalin’s or Verwoerd’s is that Habib only used just his quasi-judicial body.

Nothing will ever excuse Hitler’s actions. He slaughtered innocent Jews, children, women and elderly. Hitler also did same to other tribes he did not like. Anything that was not Arian as he confused himself. There must never be any glory bestowed on to him. Similarly no glory for Verwoerd and his men.

We must teach this, and not punish or else we are no better. The last place for intolerance of any idea or opinion is a place of learning. We must invest in building young people, not to punish them, or easily jail them or cut them off from a place of learning. Use their blunders as an opportunity for learning.

Intolerance will deepen Dlamini’s ill views and we may cultivate a person we could have re-influenced into a positive human.

Bongani Mbindwane on twitter @mbindwane

News24 Voices Terms & Conditions.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.