Jack Harvey is a Student Voice Rep Coordinator at Coventry University Students' Union (CUSU)

Policy Exchange’s summer report into academic freedom was yet more proof that conservatives on UK campuses must be “in the close,” and right-wing academics don’t stand a chance at having a successful career.

Such are the accounts of those who clearly haven’t read it. Yes, there are notable points about the culture within the academy, but there are far more modest claims with disclaimers attached – the authors admit that it is difficult to make sound judgments about the scale of these problems without plenty of reliable data. Even with the surveys done for the report, is there enough data to make those conclusions?

The best part of Policy Exchange’s report is not whichever bit you think proves that “the woke has won,” or that we need more private universities, but the opening discussion: the twenty-six pages that Adekoya, Kaufmann and Simpson take to explore academic freedom and its history. It’s here that the authors, who are reluctant to tell the same old story about the folks behind no-platforming being snowflakes and killjoys, concede that no-platforming could sometimes be justified.

In fact, an earlier paper by two philosophers suggests that no-platforming could be a necessary part of upholding academic freedom. It’s right to protect academics, they say, but it’s also about letting academics decide who deserves to address a university audience. So can no-platforming exist peacefully with academic freedom?

Without fear or favour

Academic freedom, says Policy Exchange’s team, “is the principle that individual scholars and scientists should be free to research, teach, and contribute to public debate without restriction.” Institutions must uphold this principle for academic staff, especially when it comes to their employment. If an academic puts forward a sincerely-held, well-informed view that goes down terribly on Twitter, the university should not accede to online demands that the academic gets the sack.

Academics should not need to answer to anyone in order to keep their job. Whether it’s a tobacco company offering cash for favourable “research,” a government looking to suppress the damaging findings of research into its policies or the overt political views of an departmental superior, no outside factors should compromise the integrity of an academic’s work, nor should they find a way of booting that academic from their job.

As Adekoya, Kaufmann and Simpson say, academics should be free to work without “fear or favour” – the fear of “the mob” online or getting the sack and the favour of a manager, a corporate sponsor or a state censor.

This account of academic freedom would be accepted by many academics. But something’s missing. A paper by two academics, Robert Simpson and Amia Srinivasan, published in a 2018 book on academic freedom, reveals what Policy Exchange has left out.

The freedom to censor

Keeping to a theory of academic freedom offered by the American legal scholar Robert Post, Simpson and Srinivasan argue that universities should, to a reasonable extent, control what is and what is not said on campus.

Universities are public institutions, but they do not follow the same communicative norms as others. They give academics “special protections” to pursue their inquiries without pressure from departmental superiors or the threat of losing their job – “without fear or favour,” as Policy Exchange says.

But they also give academics the right to control speech in an academic setting for the discipline’s own good. Not everyone is welcome to express their views on campus:

In the public square we can tolerate the speech of flat-earth cranks, shills paid to undermine climate science, and revisionist historians who espouse conspiratorial misreadings of the evidence. […] But such people are not owed the opportunity to teach History 101 or publish in scientific journals any more than they are owed a platform to address parliament or a corporate board meeting.”

This means that academics are free to bar entry to campus to loons, pseuds and provocateurs, the authors continue:

it is permissible for disciplinary gatekeepers to exclude cranks and shills from valuable communicative platforms in academic contexts, because good teaching and research requires that communicative privileges be given to some and not others, based on people’s disciplinary competence.”

According to the bog-standard arguments over free speech, everybody is entitled to their say; no one should be stifled for saying something unpopular, stupid or wrong. But remember that academic freedom and free speech are not the same (Policy Exchange calls the distinction “blurry”). There must be an inequality in the worth of views expressed in an academy.

The authors return to Policy Exchange’s account of academic freedom, writing that it is about giving academics “a certain kind of independence” from outside influence. But even if that independence were granted by a brave university, it is not the same as a guaranteed teaching position.

Censoring a “crank” on campus is not just permissible but the right thing to do. A university is right to stop a flat-earther speaking at a public event on campus; and its geology department is right to sack a geologist who advances flat-Earth theories:

The university would largely be a waste of time for teachers and students, and its subsidisation a waste of resources for the rest of society, were things to be otherwise.”

Academic freedom is the right of academics to guard their discipline from stupidity and ignorance, not the right of a government body to censor people:

What principles of academic freedom are meant to ensure is that such constraints are imposed by credentialed disciplinary experts, not outsiders, and that such constraints serve the promotion of disciplinary knowledge, not some ulterior agenda.”

Turning (on) a crank

Simpson and Srinivasan advance a theory of academic freedom that allows no-platforming. Universities and academics share a responsibility of supplying the wider community with knowledge from informed experts, not “cranks,” and:

It is no intrinsic affront to the intellectual culture of the university, on this view, that a person should be deprived of a platform to express her views because of a negative appraisal of her credibility and the content of her views.”

The exclusion of speakers and thinkers is permitted, provided that it respects and supports the independent exercise of disciplinary expertise in teaching and research.

It would be perfectly in order for universities to expel those who promulgate views that fly in the face of academic inquiry. This is more than a department ditching weak lecturers; it is the university adhering to its duty to maintain a culture where academic experts and intellectual enquiry are respected. It’s less about throwing rotten apples out of the barrel and more about looking after your orchard.

Pushing the Postian account to its limits, the authors wonder if no-platforming in the more common sense – the metaphorical and literal removal of speakers’ platforms as commanded by students – could still be in keeping with academic freedom. This is a much harder case to make, as students are not of the same academic expertise as their lecturers; yet, students are often involved in teaching and education, whether they are graduate students leading seminars for undergraduates or doctoral researchers helping professors advance their inquiries. Don’t they recognise cranks too?

Simpson and Srinivasan are clear that this is an ambitious argument to make. Indeed, it brings us straight to an objection: who is qualified to judge which speakers are qualified to address an audience at a university?

Cases: soft, hard and nut

The career of David Irving ended in a libel case over Deborah Lipstadt’s claim that he was one of the apologists for Holocaust denial. When history was on trial, a series of expert witnesses demolished Irving’s work. Concluding his remarks, Richard Evans instructed us not to even credit Irving as a historian:

Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about. It may seem an absurd semantic dispute […] but if we mean by “historian” someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian. Those in the know, indeed, are accustomed to avoid the term altogether when referring to him […]. Irving […] is concerned merely to give a selective and tendentious account of it in order to further his own ideological ends in the present. The true historian’s primary concern, however, is with the past. That is why, in the end, Irving is not a historian.”

If Evans’s description is accurate, it would be no contradiction of academic freedom for a university to bar Irving from making any speeches about the Holocaust on its campus, nor would it be a problem for its history department to turn down his job application. Irving is free to put forward his views at Speaker’s Corner, but not at any self-respecting university.

Other cases are harder to resolve. David Starkey, lost many of his jobs and honours this summer after his remarks on slavery during a podcast with Reasoned, a cousin of Turning Point UK. How could the slave trade of centuries past be genocide when so many “damn blacks” lived through it?

Though once described as the rudest man in Britain, Starkey’s record as a historian of Tudor England is recognised by many institutions. He has lectured at universities for many years; has presented a number of documentaries for television and given lectures for historical societies. Was it in the name of academic freedom that a Cambridge college, Canterbury Christ Church University and other institutions cut ties with him over what he called his “awful clumsiness”?

Decisions, decisions

Simpson and Srinivasan offer a stronger account of academic freedom than Policy Exchange. Their Postian theory permits academics to defend the integrity of their disciplines by excluding charlatans whose work would dumb down education.

But the success of their version of academic freedom depends on a university’s capacity to distinguish the cranks from the controversialists. As they recognise, some cases are easy enough – would the university permit a flat-Earther to speak to its geology students? – but also ones where things are up for debate. Who is the arbiter in such cases? Who will have the final say on whether so-and-so is merely an academic with some unfashionable but academically sound views?

The remedy, according to Policy Exchange, is government intervention, something that they feel is a both necessary evil and a convenient way to commence a gradual cultural shift away from constant bowing to the permanently offended. But as the philosophers point out, you have to make an effort to distinguish free speech problems from violations of academic freedom. The freedom to address an audience at the Oxford Union is not the same as the freedom to publish your work in an Oxford journal.

Trust in me

The truth is that there is no arbiter of academia. But we can settle for the next-best thing: the academics themselves. Sure, as individuals their judgment could be swayed by their own opinions, politics and biases, but a group of qualified academics from across a faculty can surely come to a sound decision on whether tomorrow’s talk on the shape of the Earth is based on proper research or an experiment done in your back garden.

If you think that academics are a bunch of postmodernist loons, you’ll suspect that without oversight, they will decide that people with their opinions are “real” academics and people who fail to uphold the woke creed are the cranks, the fakes, the pseudo-scientists. That’s why a government-backed “champion” of academic freedom might appeal.

But I say that we should have more faith in academics. Most academics are not like the sort of people described anonymously in Policy Exchange’s report. Most academics care passionately about their discipline and about its integrity. They know their duties toward their students and toward the university and its dedication to education and academic inquiry.

Sometimes, for the good of academic inquiry and public education, platforms must be denied. As Simpson and Srinivasan tell us, if every viewpoint gets equal treatment on campus, what is the point of a university?

2 responses to “Does academic freedom permit no-platforming?

  1. Robert Post essentially argues that academics act as gate keepers to ensure universities continue to produce expert knowledge. If accepted, this is just as much an argument for platforming as no-platforming. The academics could platform anyone deemed to meet required standards, regardless of what students or administrators think about it. Students in particular cannot be gatekeepers in this formulation which is why SUs would surely prefer the JS Mill justification of no-platforming, ie freedom of expression/action provided it does not harm others. This is not to say the Mill formulation is without its problems…

  2. This position could be the thin end of the wedge. Sorting the cranks from those who hold sincerely held beliefs is fraught with problems. I still prefer to hear the cranks so long as there is a counter view from an expert. Therein, we’ll be teaching students the difference between the evidence, and nonsense. This is a useful lesson for students.

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