How to win the campus free-speech wars

I became a university lecturer almost 50 years ago, in 1974. At that time in British higher education, there were occasional attempts to shut down discussion and limit freedom of speech. But the vast majority of academics and students were relatively open-minded, and serious clashes of views were a regular feature of campus life.



In the decades since, I have witnessed a significant change. Universities have become increasingly intolerant, and academics and students no longer think free speech is a big deal. Incredibly, the cultural climate that prevails within British higher education is now far less tolerant than in the world outside.

In recent weeks, we have seen the No Platforming of Selina Todd, an Oxford University professor who was prevented from speaking at an event at the Oxford International Women’s Festival because of her views on transgender issues. And former home secretary Amber Rudd was disinvited from an Oxford University student-society event, following pressure from other student groups over her links to the Windrush scandal.


As such brazen displays of intolerance have become more widespread, parliamentarians have begun to discuss the possibility of introducing a law, or new procedures, to strengthen the right to free speech in universities. It has been reported that the government is considering bringing forward an 11-clause bill, drafted within the Department for Education, that would make good on the Tory party’s 2019 manifesto pledge to ‘strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities’.

This is not the first time that a Conservative government has raised concerns about the fragile state of free speech in universities. Back in 2017, the then universities minister, Jo Johnson, insisted that universities must ‘pledge’ to protect free speech or face being fined or even deregistered by the newly created Office for Students (OfS). He wanted to make the protection of free speech a statutory duty, and a condition of registration with the OfS. The aim of this policy was to hold university authorities to account for the illiberal behaviour of students’ unions.


But so far, no new legislation requiring universities to protect freedom of speech has been passed. Moreover, there is no clear evidence it would make any difference even if new laws were passed. The 1986 Education Act, enacted after several Tory politicians were No Platformed during the early 1980s, already requires universities to uphold freedom of speech. And yet, ever since, we have seen a rise in campus intolerance, not a decline. I am not surprised by the failure of the law to uphold free speech in universities. No government can enforce freedom if a substantial number of people are against it.


There is no administrative solution to the problem of free speech

The enactment of new laws is an inappropriate and clumsy way of challenging illiberal practices on campuses. Illiberalism and intolerance are deeply entrenched in academic culture. Indeed, the problem begins early, when schoolchildren are told that there are some things they can’t say. By the time young people arrive at university, they have already learned that speech acts that offend ought to be shut down, and perpetrators of offence are legitimate targets of censorship.

Unless children are fortunate enough to encounter a non-conforming teacher, willing to challenge the culture of offence and the politicisation of identity, they will have heard very little about the moral and intellectual significance of freedom. Typically, a cohort of new undergraduates arrives on campus with a meagre understanding of what freedom means in practice, and an ignorance of why the pursuit of the truth depends on a willingness to be exposed to challenging, and even disturbing, ideas.


Campus culture today regards free speech and academic freedom with suspicion. Many student activists, and quite a few academics, assert that only those on the right are interested in free speech. They then dismiss talk of a free-speech crisis on campus as the paranoid fantasy of old, white, heterosexual men.

As it happens, active supporters of intolerance are still a minority within the campus community. The problem is that instead of challenging this minority, most academics and students prefer an easy life. So they are reluctant to challenge the identity entrepreneurs who see offence and bigotry everywhere and who call for language to be policed. Instead, students and academics often self-censor so as to avoid being hassled by the intolerant minority. It means that the culture war now being waged on campuses by identitarians, rarely meets with serious resistance.


Relying on the law to alter the political climate on campuses is a folly. Free speech cannot be enforced by government decree without ceasing to be, well, free. People have to be convinced of the importance of free speech through a battle of ideas. Laws don’t convince. They coerce.

This battle of ideas, this battle for hearts and minds, can only be conducted effectively from within education. It will be a long, protracted battle, which will necessarily begin at school.


How can an enlightened government help?

If a government is genuinely interested in protecting the culture of freedom within and without academia, there are four practical steps it can take.

First, it can desist from promoting the politicisation of identity and the policing of speech. Recent UK governments, Labour and Tory alike, have encouraged the policing of speech by expanding the meaning of hate crime. They have also promoted identity politics – especially the agenda of trans activists – and have acquiesced to its censorious claims. Government needs to remove laws and procedures that criminalise speech, except in circumstances where words are clearly used to incite acts of violence.


Second, students’ union membership should be made an entirely voluntary act. Students’ unions, like any voluntary organisations, should be funded by their members, not publicly subsidised. Such steps would make students’ unions more accountable, and would reduce the resources available for the promotion of anti-democratic activities.

Third, university students and academics should have recourse to legal assistance if they face politically motivated charges, bans and other forms of administrative punishment for their behaviour. Experience shows that if victims of intolerance rely on internal university procedures, they are far less likely to receive justice than if they were able to appeal to due process.


Fourth, the government should examine increasing funding to higher education with a view to encouraging the establishment of new institutions that are genuinely committed to democratic humanist values and which take freedom seriously. As an initial step, policymakers should encourage the establishment of new institutions designed to train teachers. In this way, countering the influence of illiberal pedagogy could have an important influence on the outlook of a new generation of teachers.

These four proposals are designed to change campus culture for the better. Not through government diktat, but through the provision of resources and support for individuals prepared to challenge the forces of intolerance and illiberalism within British universities.


Published on Spiked

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