Opinie_Sam Rentmeester Delta TU Delft
(Picture for illustration: Sam Rentmeester)

TU Delft researcher Felienne Hermans does not agree with Delta columnist Dap Hartmann, who argues that freedom of speech should be unrestricted at the university. She wrote this letter.

You may have read about this case on the Delta website or on social media. One of our professors, Herman van Bergeijk, called a student ‘a future IS terrorist, here to practice’. TU Delft responded, suspending the professor from the course and making him apologise. This is in accordance with our code of ethics that prohibits racist speech.

All good, you would think, but in an article in Delta, Dap Hartmann disagrees. He argues that this is the work of “rabid feminists … who want to hang people from the highest tree”. Free speech, argues Hartmann, should be unrestricted. So let me seize this opportunity to clearly explain what free speech is and how it relates to the university.

Nuance is hard for technologists

The problem of what we can and can’t say is, by definition, a grey area. When are you debating issues and when are you inciting violence? I try to live by the wise words of Terry Pratchett:

“Satire is meant to ridicule power. If you are laughing at people who are hurting, it‘s not satire, it’s bullying.”

Punch up, not down. This line is grey and elastic, moving with time and between situations and people. If I tell my girlfriends they’re ‘bitches’ that is not the same as if my dean calls me a bitch. Context is key, and our engineering culture does not prepare us for this. We are used to calculating whether spin is up or down, or whether a bit is 0 or 1. That is what we practice and teach. That means that we sometimes have a hard time dealing with things that are, by definition, not black and white, not rule based.

What is ‘free speech’?

People wielding the ‘free speech’ sword often misrepresent it, intentionally or not. If we take a look at our constitution, the article Hartmann refers to is 7.1, which reads:

“Niemand heeft voorafgaand verlof nodig om door de drukpers gedachten of gevoelens te openbaren, behoudens ieders verantwoordelijkheid volgens de wet.”

Meaning that no one needs permission (implicitly from the government) to publish their thoughts. So the only thing that our law states is that one does not need permission from the state about opinions before we express them. After the fact, you may be punished in several ways for expressing your thoughts. People can be (and are) fined or jailed for saying things that Dutch law prohibits. The interested reader can find over 300 defamation cases since 2014 in the Dutch public record (search terms: ‘smaad’ and ‘aanzetten tot geweld’) and almost 200 cases of inciting violence.

So the case that Hartmann makes here for free speech is strange, because the law only says that Van Bergeijk does not need the permission of the government to say what he wants. But when people complain about your remarks, they do not violate your constitutional rights. Van Bergeijk, Hartmann and all other professors have unconditional free speech, but the free speech exists between them and the government.

And TU Delft is not the government

What I may or may not do at TU Delft is not simply determined by law. An employer may ask you to be on time, to wear certain clothes and to behave in a certain way. Freedom of body (article 11), for example my right to wear visible piercings in my face, may be overruled by an employer. Similarly the right of free speech may be (and is) overruled by our code of ethics.

Why? Because the relationship between a student and a professor is not that of equal adults. It is my responsibility to make sure students feel welcome and safe in the classroom, so safe that they even feel safe enough to tell me if I crossed a line. I once addressed a student in a way that he did not feel comfortable with. My first impulse was to dismiss his feelings and think of him as overly sensitive. But he had a point, and I thanked him for the feedback and I try to be better.

Hartmann asks whether this ‘is the direction we want to go in’. I for one am proud that I work in a place where students point out racist and sexist speech and the university takes note and action.

Also read the next letter in this debate: ‘Yes, free speech