Not today, thank you
Freedom of speech is no longer a fashionable cause. It is
suffering from a bad case of academic indifference.
In July, the heads of universities were told that they had to sign
up to the crusade against terrorism by clamping down on extremist
campus groups that promote terrorism. Bill Rammell, the Higher Education
Minister, informed vice-chancellors that they had to do their bit
to challenge the "evil ideology" responsible for the recent
bombings in London.
Rammell claimed that free speech was important but added that "we
also have a responsibility to tackle extremism on campus".
Unfortunately, experience indicates that coupling free speech with
the demand to "tackle extremism" restricts discussion.
But anyone worried about political fanatics need not be concerned
about the protection a university affords to the open exchange of
views. In such an environment, there is at least the possibility
of confronting all points of view. But the censoring or curbing
of dissident ideas only drives them underground where their influence
may remain unchecked.
The belief that the way to deal with objectionable ideas is to
ban them is not restricted to the UK Government. In recent years,
"the right to offend" has been questioned and undermined
through numerous speech codes and codes of conduct. Attacks on academic
freedom are often launched from within the university. The recent
attempt by some Association of University Teachers members to call
for a boycott of certain Israeli institutions of higher education
indicates that intolerance is not confined to officially appointed
The absence of a serious outcry from colleagues over the attempt
to curb the freedom of Israeli academics suggests that any future
official clampdown on the influence of Islamist groups is unlikely
to provoke a significant reaction. If academics are so eager to
give up academic freedom to assist one cause, they will lack the
moral resources to object to more curbs to help another cause.
Free speech has ceased to be fashionable. Perhaps this is due to
a loss of belief in the idea that it is likely to encourage enlightenment
and clarity. Concern with campus extremism expresses the pessimistic
conviction that extremists' ideas have so much more appeal than
ours that the best reaction is to ban them.
Loss of belief in the creative dimension of academic freedom co-exists
with a powerful current of cynicism towards it. No one argues that
they are against academic freedom. In principle, everyone is prepared
to embrace it.
But in practice, academic freedom is not something that academics
are very bothered about. We rarely notice when it is tested and
many claim it is not always worth the hassle to defend it.
In recent years, academic freedom has been called into question
by the spread of bureaucratic rule-making. The standardisation of
evaluation procedures, benchmarking and auditing subject academic
life to an external script. At best, academic freedom has an uneasy
relationship with regulatory processes. At worst, academics have
to design courses that have the right kind of "learning outcomes"
and they have to fit in their teaching with the prescribed procedures.
This has not led to an explicit attack on academic freedom. It
has simply created an environment in which academic freedom has
lost some of its meaning. It is not surprising that the academy
has become so indifferent to the fate of freedoms that were hitherto
seen as the precondition for intellectual enterprise.
And what will we do if we are asked to root out extremism on the
campus? Are we going to manage extremism administratively? Or affirm
the importance of academic freedom?
published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 September