Freedom of speech means the same tired old arguments

The rumour was that there was nearly legislation on free speech in universities in last month’s Queen’s Speech.

Had Jo Johnson not resigned, Policy Exchange’s report could have been government policy. And however you feel about media contrarians being given the right to be offensive without redress and/or the sacred and inalienable right of free speech on campus, these still would have been bad proposals based on terrible evidence. As the report itself notes:

There has to date been a lack of good evidence, specific to the UK, which confirms or disconfirms whether academic freedom is being infringed beyond a small number of high profile cases.”

This report does not contribute any further useful evidence – even to a debate that exists largely in the fevered imaginations of right-wing commentators.

That free speech in full

The examples of the denial of free speech on campus in the report are pretty much as you would expect.

we sought to move beyond abstract questions of free speech to concrete cases, exploring student opinion on the banning of Jacob Rees-Mogg, dismissal of Jordan Peterson from Cambridge, no-platforming of Germaine Greer, and the idea of having a dress code for costume parties”

As we’ve covered before on Wonkhe, Germaine Greer and Jacob Rees-Mogg were not “no platformed”. Rees-Mogg spoke at UWE, Greer spoke at Cardiff – students opposed to the positions being espoused exercised their own right to protest.

Self-styled “professor against political correctness” Jordan Peterson spoke at Cambridge Union in 2018, and subsequently applied for a two month fellowship at the School of Divinity. An initial offer was made, and then rescinded based on evidence of Peterson’s conduct.

And some students’ unions (Kent Union is the usual cited example) have democratically agreed to ask students not to wear deliberately offensive costumes based on stereotypes at union events – weathering a hugely hostile media response to do so. Quite how limits on your choice of party costume limits academic free speech is never explained.

And the results…

How would you expect the results of a survey about free speech to look if universities were, indeed, “stifled by a culture of conformity”?

For me, I’d expect to see some evidence of this culture of conformity, perhaps indicated by the majority of students answering in the same way. This, after all, is what conformity actually means.

[Full screen]

The top graph shows percentages within each group giving each answer, the bottom shows numbers of students extrapolated from the weighted totals for each group provided. You can choose from the seven questions we have data for using the drop down menu.

Instead of a monoculture we see something that should gladden the heart of every free speech advocate – students are split on every issue. The margins of error on such a small sample are likely to make a nonsense of these findings, but it appears that students are mildly in favour of free speech when it comes to Jacob Rees-Mogg or dressing up, and mildly in favour of “emotional safety” when faced with Greer and Peterson – the latter two findings having more to do with a different question type rather than a material difference.

Another headline finding suggests that “4 in 10 (39%) of Leave-supporting students say that they would be comfortable espousing that view in class”. There are 505 students in the sample – how many do you think would be leave supporters? About 28 students would be uncomfortable expressing a view unpopular in their age group in front of their peers.

And a third of the sample (about 140 students) were shown one of three paragraphs (pro-free speech, pro-emotional safety, and neutral) to see if it has an impact on their answers. It did (probably, at this sample size we honestly can’t be sure, and we don’t get the tables for that data) – a finding that will come as no surprise to anyone who has done any research in the social sciences in the past 50 years.

Even just repeating the results of the survey undermines the point of the report. Nearly half (45 per cent) of all students surveyed think that those who voted leave would feel comfortable in saying so on campus. Fifty four per cent of students don’t think that universities should set guidelines and punish transgressions on fancy dress. Fifty-two per cent feel that, in general, universities should favour free speech over emotional safety.

A terrible survey

It is not possible to draw a random sample of UK students through existing survey firms.”

It is very, very, difficult to draw a reliably representative random sample from any population for the purposes of running an opinion survey. It is, however, perfectly possible to draw a representative sample – something that is the basis of the livelihood of every major polling company.

The process starts by identifying as many possible participants as you can, and then asking them about their personal characteristics. Election polling shows it is perfectly possible to use this information to select or weight a sample based on age, sex, ethnicity, location, voting history, salary, level of education, ethnicity and anything else you might think is useful. The more representative your sample, the more representative it will be – though there will always be limits (for example the kind of people that sign up for online polling services may be very different from those that don’t).

Policy Exchange used a service called Prolific to find students to survey. The service runs a bit like Fiverr or similar platforms – people sign up and agree to be surveyed for money. There will be a bit of a selection effect (I’d argue, though the report authors disagree, that people who sign up for such services are pretty weird).

However, as above, the sample size was 505, weighted only for self-identified gender. They collect data on brexit preferences, but don’t weight by it. We already know that this is likely to be a non-representative sample, so this small sample size is going to exacerbate the effect. At this stage the evidence is slightly better than looking at chicken entrails, but this depends what kind of chicken you are using.

And tables released in Microsoft Word? Seriously?

Why is free speech still a thing?

I find it hard to believe that anyone, no matter how committed they may personally be to the idea, sees campus cultural wars as a vote-winner. Student scare stories have been around as long as there have been students. They serve as a momentary distraction to the rest of the world, if that.

The recommendations are nonsensical. There’s a call to clarify that free speech duties apply to all members (staff and students) of universities, but this is immediately countered by the astonishing suggestion that free speech means prohibiting members of a university “from obstructing, disrupting, or otherwise interfering with the freedom of others to express their views”. Banning protest, in the name of free speech.

And though the report is called “academic freedom” in the UK, you’ll be struggling to find anything about actual academic freedom in there. It’s all just “free speech” scare stories. Maybe one of the proposed “academic freedom champions” (both at the Office for Students and at each provider, for some reason) could track it down.

The three straight summers of snowflake stories prove only that people like to read about students. The reality of politics on campus is as messy and vibrant as it ever was. And we should take heart in that.

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