Is protest “free speech” or damaging to democracy?

The government's Independent Advisor on Political Violence and Disruption has a report out "extreme" protest groups. Jim Dickinson thinks through the implications for universities.

The material on universities in Lord Walney’s new report on “Protecting our Democracy from Coercion” ploughs a fairly familiar free speech furrow.

Former Labour MP John Woodcock, now a life peer, was appointed back in 2019 to lead a review examining the activities of the far right, far left and other “extreme” political groups as the government’s Independent Advisor on Political Violence and Disruption.

He was asked to increase understanding of how these groups’ outputs drive terrorism, violence, and criminality, including disruptive and antisocial behaviour; understand international conceptions of and approaches to extremist movements; and instructed to consider the “tipping point” between political activism and criminal behaviour, how extreme political groups influence British citizens, and how such activities might undermine societal wellbeing and cohesiveness.

It was a pretty expansive brief to start with – and has come to be seen as an “answer” to everything from public ire at the tactics of Just Stop Oil, to work that may offer answers to concern over Pro-Palestinian activism in the form of large demonstrations seen in London since October.

Liberal first

There’s two main themes in the report – defining, identifying and offering recommendations over the groups themselves, and wider intolerances towards Walney’s definition of the “liberal-first principles” on which “British democracy has been built”.

The material on universities very much falls in the second of those two camps.

A section on academics highlights a familiar handful of “cancellation” cases – Steven Greer facing allegations of Islamophobia at Bristol University, Selina Todd receiving security due to threats at Oxford, and Rosa Freedman being compared to a Holocaust denier at Essex University.

Jo Phoenix’s lecture cancellation at Essex University gets a mention, criticism levelled at Nigel Biggar over his views on empire comes up, and social media attacks aimed at Mary Beard over her defence of historical accuracy are in there too. 2015’s online petition calling to cancel a lecture by Germain Greer at Cardiff University is also included.

There’s a collection of reminders about controversies surrounding visiting speakers too – reminding readers that a group called Trans Action disrupted a talk by Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi MP at Warwick University, chanting “Tory scum” and forcing Zahawi to be escorted off campus by security.

Walney also highlights the incident when Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely was harassed by pro-Palestinian protestors at LSE, the time when Bristol Anti-Fascists disrupted a talk by Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the time when feminist writer Julie Bindel was verbally abused and lunged at after an event at the University of Edinburgh, amidst chants of “Die cis scum” from protestors.

That collection of stories – which some would argue are one sided descriptions of isolated incidents, while others would argue are above the surface manifestations of an iceberg of intolerance – then morphs the same cherry-picked stats on “intimidation and self-censorship” on campus that we’ve seen before.

2022’s report from King’s College London reminds us that three in ten students couldn’t agree that academics are free to express their views, that 34 per cent believed that free speech was threatened and a quarter had heard of incidents where free speech was inhibited. We’re also reminded of the Policy Exchange research that triggered the Free Speech Bill – with that “fewer than four in ten academics would dine with a gender-critical feminist” stat we’ve heard so often.

Added in is 2023’s report from Lord Mann highlighting the “stifling and intimidating culture” for Jewish academics, with many self-censoring on Israel-Palestine issues.

“Universities are becoming closed spaces” says Walney, which he says “undermines the purpose of higher education and intellectual debate.”

As such it’s perhaps a relief that other than broadly endorsing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, there are no specific recommendations for the sector. It’s also interesting that Walney doesn’t really draw links between what’s happening in the rest of the world and how that, rather than universities, might have “caused” the problems he sees in the sector’s backyard – the problem is “inadequate protection and discipline by university authorities”. And Walney doesn’t cover off the way in which Lord Mann believes that an increase in campus antisemitism has been fuelled by the Act.

Radicalising the young

Even more of a relief – or more concerning, depending on your perspective – is the absence of the way in which the university environment generally, or student societies specifically – often represent offshoots of many of the “extremist” groups that Walney defines and lists elsewhere in the report.

This is mainly about tactics – with Walney identifying groups who do not commit to legal means to secure change or who engage in or facilitate intimidation or harassment. So when he argues that central and local government must commit not to fund, work, nor consult with groups – and suggests that outside of government, elected representatives of mainstream political parties should not engage with such groups either – we might expect that universities whose SUs host, support, facilitate or provide a freshers fair stall for such groups would eventually come under scrutiny too.

For journalists looking to run their thumb down the student groups tab on an SU website, Walney includes a directory of the groups he identifies – with pen portraits of their tactics and the way in which they meet his definition.

There won’t be many (and I’m sure there aren’t any) universities with a “Patriotic Alternative” or “Atomwaffen Divison” group booking rooms on campus – but his list of left-wing groups may well have names that come up on the Freshers Fair map.

Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion are in there and have membership lists on campus, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) still have some student offshoots, and while now-proscribed revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir used to operate on campus through front-socs, it’s not clear that they do now.

There are other smatterings of the way in which groups have been accused of radicalising or manipulating students. The “London Black Revolutionaries” are said to have stated an aim to “go into colleges to recruit and politicise students”, and Just Stop Oil is noted as a prevalent student recruiter.

Illiberal liberalism

Depending on your perspective, Walney’s attempt at squaring the circle of illiberally banning some groups to preserve a liberal society is either tortuous or genius. “Defending a free society was a key theme in my review” he says, while drawing on roundtables that discussed the unequal treatment of protests, the inconsistent application of laws protecting free speech, the role of human rights laws in tackling political violence and disruption, and a debate about rights and public order, with mixed views on whether universal rights help or hinder responses to extremism.

Particularly tricky were roundtables “emphasising the necessity of defending the existing political order” and a “perceived lack of willingness to act against those who defy it” – all while doing little to understand why many groups on the list might have concluded that said existing political order is failing to deliver on their stated aims and goals.

So when four “key principles” are identified as essential to maintaining the democratic political order – support for parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and rejecting alliances with hostile states or non-state actors – Walney just accepts them as needing preservation. The legitimacy of views that think those precepts are failing is never really considered – and the contradictions glossed over:

This means rejecting efforts to shut down free speech through threats and intimidation, such as storming university lecture theatres to disrupt speakers, causing disruption outside television studios, trying to stop cultural events, targeting cinemas over films, or blocking newspaper deliveries. The intimidation and targeting of teachers, academics, and journalists are also relevant examples.

The way in which disruption, or campaigning against someone or something, tends here to be framed as “threats and intimidation” never really gets into whether those interpretations are always reasonable, or legally reliable. Nor does Walney address the history of resistance, protest and disruption – and the extent to which retellings of it appear often to those involved in such tactics to require it to achieve change.

Last year’s Open Society Foundations (OSF) report highlighted a “concerning decline” in support for democracy among young people – with only 57 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 35 preferring it over other forms of government, compared to 71 per cent of those over 56.

It said that 42 per cent of younger respondents supported military rule, that 35 per cent of young people favour a “strong leader” who bypasses elections and parliament, and that over half (53 per cent) felt their country is heading in the wrong direction – with significant concerns about poverty, inequality, climate crisis, and corruption.

Walney’s report goes nowhere near understanding why this might be – favouring needling internet companies, manipulation and a failure to regulate extremist groups over any critique of liberal democracies’ failure to deliver on promises (particularly to young people).

Another crackdown, please

Zoom out a bit and the recommendations end up feeling very much like treatments for symptoms rather than causes. Of particular interest to universities and SUs is Walney’s call for the government to introduce a mechanism to restrict the activities of organisations he identifies by restricting group’s rights to assembly, recruitment and fundraising.

We might not have expected Walney to realise that SUs are to be legally prevented from not recognising or defunding groups on the basis of beliefs – and nobody submits their society constitution with a note saying “we’ll pour orange paint on the VC’s desk”.

Even if they did, the story of Hizb’s attempt at infiltration on campus or the way in which the SWP’s student groups have tended to argue that they are independent from the decisions of the central committee tell us that some of what Walney suggests would be unworkable in a campus context.

There’s also stuff on police forces being enabled to balance the resource requirements of policing protests with other frontline priorities, the publication of guidance on statements, chants, or symbols that may constitute an offence during political protests, maintaining and regularly updating a list of images and symbols associated with proscribed organisations, and requiring protest organisers to contribute to policing costs for large demonstrations – all while the Free Speech Act will require universities and SUs to fund security costs for talks organised by anyone with extreme views that fall below appropriate thresholds.

Will any of this make it into Prevent guidance, Home Office action plans or the statute book? Many of Walney’s recommendations feel like they’d take time to get through Parliament – although Sunak appears to be playing hard-man-against-extremes in the run up to an election, in a Parliament that has little else to do.

If nothing else, Home Secretary James Cleverly’s statement to Parliament accompanying publication suggests that the urgent priority will be to look at Walney’s recommendations on public order – and changing the thresholds for imposing conditions on protests and the way in which they are applied:

This includes amending the threshold to prevent protests from going ahead on account of the cumulative impact of serious disruption, or where there is the threat of intimidating or abusive conduct … [we will also] consider his recommendation for greater responsibilities being put on the organisers of protests to limit disruption, and to allow the police to account for demands on their resource in setting conditions to ensure wider public safety in their jurisdictions beyond protests.

What is clear is that the mood music on condemning those with radical views – and tactics – will continue, seemingly with no strategy to engage with those that hold them, understand why those that hold them see them as aspirational, or attempt to change the way a system that Walney suggests works just doesn’t in their minds. More of the same, in other words.

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