The Boundaries We Do Not Cross

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

Elizabeth Olsson |

Democracy, defined in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1994. Photo taken by the author

We need to discuss boundaries. We learned this lesson the hard way at the University of Gothenburg last week. Protests erupted over an invitation extended by the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMG) to a member of the Sweden Democrats (SD). On the surface, the invitation seemed inconsequential. JMG asked representatives of every party serving in parliament to present their communication strategies during a seminar series. But as the date for SD’s seminar drew near and passionate arguments proliferated online and in corridors, we soon realized that there was much more at stake.

On the one hand, the invitation signaled an anything-goes approach to academic freedom and democratic discourse. Proponents of the invitation argued that academics should be free to teach about anything and everything. They further maintained that academic freedom allows university staff to invite anyone to speak on any topic, stressing the importance of learning from those with whom we disagree. This marketplace-of-ideas argument emphasized that universities are one of the last bastions of controversy. Consequently, we do ourselves a disservice if we limit either the content of diverse opinions or place restrictions on those allowed to express them.

On the other hand, the protests called into question the limits of academic freedom and democratic discourse. Those opposing the seminar argued that freedom of expression is necessarily limited and precludes discussion of the inherent value and equality of human beings. In their estimation, members of a political party, such as SD, with a documented history of distinguishing between the fundamental value of members of the ‘Swedish nation’ and members of the ‘Swedish state’ are speaking outside the boundaries of constitutional democracy and, thus, cannot be given a platform inside of universities.

This debate revealed an underlying set of questions in need of immediate response. I identify and answer three of the questions raised by both proponents and opponents of the seminar below. The purpose of this post is to use the current debate as a jumping-off point to discuss broader issues.

What are the limits of democratic discourse?

The term, democratic, sets the boundaries of democratic discourse. Anything goes in discourse. Democratic discourse, however, is not so free-wheeling. The limits to democratic discourse in Sweden are found in the Constitution, or fundamental law, which protects the equal worth of all (Chapter 1, Article 2). Specifically, the Constitution stipulates “public institutions shall combat discrimination of persons on the grounds of gender, colour, national or ethnic origin, linguistic or religious affiliation, functional disability, sexual orientation, age or other circumstance affecting the individual” (Chapter 1, Article 2).

Consequently, any discussion of the inherent inequality of a person or group of people crosses the boundaries of democratic discourse. SD’s designations of problematic religious affiliations, their policing of “Swedish culture and traditions,” and their claim that an “inherited essence” distinguishes members of the Swedish nation from members of other nations— are anti-democratic. While SD party leaders routinely categorize and compare people, they also incite violence. A top official’s proclamation of “victory or death” ahead of the last election is one of the most egregious and anti-democratic statements made by a Swedish politician in recent memory.

It does not matter that SD was democratically elected to serve in parliament. If their platform and policies contradict the Constitution, they are operating outside of the limits of democracy. So, yes, there are limits to democratic discourse, and yes, SD’s party line is well-outside those limits.

What are the limits of academic freedom?

While academics are free to study any topic from any angle at any time, they are not free to invite any research subject into the classroom. Here’s a practical example. While you can research the Ku Klux Klan, you cannot invite the Grand Wizard to teach your students the nuances of “race betrayal.” This prohibition does not change if the Grand Wizard is elected president of the U.S. (Brief history lesson: High-ranking members of the KKK regularly run for political office in the U.S., including the presidency.) This prohibition also does not change if you invite the Grand Wizard to discuss something as seemingly non-controversial and unrelated to “race betrayal” as robotics. (I know, I know robotics is a hot topic right now but, hopefully, you get my point. A documented history of racist and discriminatory language is grounds for excluding speakers to discuss any topic at the university.)

Just as we do not invite lions to lectures because someone might get eaten; we do not invite members of SD to seminars because someone’s fundamental value as a human being might be questioned— and that is unacceptable.

Do universities’ non-discrimination policies extend to guest speakers?

Universities must ensure that all employees and students are treated both equally and with dignity and respect. These non-discrimination policies apply to everyone, including guest speakers. A guest speaker’s documented history of racist and discriminatory remarks is, thus, grounds for barring them from speaking. If a student or member staff can be removed from the university for making such false and incendiary statements as “Muslims are destroying our country,” or “immigrants are invading the homeland,” then we cannot invite guests who have said these things.

While I see the point of refraining from censorship until a discriminatory statement is made, members of SD have not only made these statements already, they have inscribed them into their party platform. Inviting SD— or any other group that employs similarly extremist and exclusionary rhetoric— to present at a seminar violates non-discrimination policies.

Moving forward, we must grapple with the meaning of democracy in the university context. The debate over inviting a member of SD to present at a seminar is only a case study in a much larger and more elaborate discussion of equality, freedom, and non-discrimination. Until university officials take the democratic in democratic discourse seriously, last week’s uproar will be just another round in a knockdown, drag-out fight over democratic practice inside university spaces.

Keywords: #academicfreedom #democracy #democraticvalues #freespeech #fundamentallaw #hatespeech #nondiscrimination #SD #Sweden #swedendemocrats

Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student specializing in peace and development studies at SGS. She researches conflict and democracy.

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