The chilling effects of the free speech bill could be very extreme

Surveys of staff and students are the central tactic being used to prove that there’s a free speech problem on campus. But what are they telling us? Jim Dickinson ticks the boxes.

You won’t believe what those extremist Republicans have done in Florida now!

Governor Ron DeSantis has now signed into law legislation that will require all public colleges and universities to annually survey students, academics and professional services staff on their political beliefs in what he says is an attempt to promote “intellectual diversity.”

The new law – the surveys from which DeSantis has suggested could determine levels of funding in the future – also demands that university students “be shown diverse ideas and opinions, including those that they may disagree with or find uncomfortable”.

It all comes in the same month that DeSantis has banned Florida schools from teaching students about racism through critical race theory and now requires them to teach their students that communism is “evil.”

It couldn’t happen here

There’s a lot of people who don’t believe that this sort of thing – where “free speech” in education is less about free speech and more about a cover for a particular kind of populist politics – could ever happen here, until you point out that it is, in fact, literally happening here:

What’s worse? An actual MP that actually thinks that “lectures based on critical race theory” are responsible for the student mental health crisis, or one that knows that’s nonsense but stokes the culture war up anyway?

In the absence of actual incidents of “no platforming”, it’s surveys of the sort about to be mandated in the Sunshine State that underpin the case that there is a “chilling effect” in the two Policy Exchange reports that provided the precursor to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

And the Bill’s own impact assessment makes clear that the government will carry out research of its own (for example, a “survey regarding levels of self-censorship”) to establish whether the problem has been reduced.

Given the Office for Students’ Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom is to be charged with overseeing the performance of its new free speech functions, we are surely only months away from the National Student Survey review proposing questions on whether students would sit with a Tory on a Tuesday lunchtime (if, that is, they could find a seat on campus on a Tuesday lunchtime).

As such it’s obviously important for us to have a think about how these surveys work – and to help us do just that, a “brief survey on higher education” has been distributed to staff at various UK (and international) universities that is a helpful case study in the creation of binary options for answers to complex issues, the crafting of leading questions to get a particular result, and the overall framing of a set of issues that leads inexorably to proof of the existence of an on-campus culture war.

Going on the offence

Question 7 of the survey is as good a place as any to start:

Q. Please indicate if you agree or disagree with the following statement: “Some people should be prevented from speaking to student audiences if their views are likely to offend students”.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here. First you’ll see that opposition to the presence of a speaker on campus is framed as rooted in the “taking of offence”. But with some rare exceptions, opposition to speakers on campus isn’t about some people being “offended” – it’s about the risk of harm or oppression, or about preventing extremism.

As a result, it doesn’t really matter what the result to the survey is. The framing of the question sets up the phenomenon of “offence taking”, and anyone who ticks “Yes” on the basis that they don’t think there should be an unfettered and harmful free for all will contribute to a finding that proves there’s a needlessly censorious culture on campus.

See also “objection” without cause:

Q. Please indicate if you agree or disagree with the following statement: “Universities should defend free speech even if some students object.”

Zeros and ones

Here’s another frame game, this time using bizarre binaries to get to a sensational finding:

Q. Some people think that academics should have total control over their reading lists. Others think that they should include materials representing the views of particular political or social groups. Where would you place yourself on this scale?

You’ll see here that the idea of academics having ultimate control of the content of reading lists is posited as the opposite of those lists being created in a way that is mindful of the wider social and political context in which those academics operate.

Crucially, you’ll see the insinuation is about control of the curriculum – either it’s determined by experts free of influence, or the “woke mob”. You can’t use the “half way along” option to signal that a decent academic would think about who is being represented in the curated collection of knowledge they present without that tick in that box implying a moderate level of mob rule.

So if you’re the sort of academic who feels fully in control yet has decided to decolonise your reading lists, you’ll want to signal as such by ticking somewhere in the middle – and that’s the result that will be in the Mail on Sunday.

See also:

Q. Some people say that we should prioritize social justice concerns (i.e. ensuring equity between different groups and tackling historic injustices) over academic freedom. Others say that we should prioritize academic freedom irrespective of whether or not it violates social justice concerns. Where would you place yourself on this scale?

Back here in the real world

As well as asking for folks’ opinions in principle, one thing surveys like this sometimes do is test respondents’ reactions to “real world” events:

Q. Please give us your opinion on the following real-world case. In 2019, Professor Bo Winegard tweeted the following: “The greatest challenge to affluent societies is dealing openly, honestly, and humanely with biological (genetic) inequality. If we don’t meet this challenge, I suspect our countries will be torn apart from the inside like a tree destroyed by parasites. This led students to complain and Professor Winegard lost his job at Marietta State College. Do you agree or disagree with Marietta’s decision not to renew Winegard’s contract?”

Sadly the option to say “well there’s not enough information” isn’t available. So those who look at the statement and think to themselves “well the university is bound to have taken into account a variety of factors, incidents and behaviours and measured them objectively against a behavioural code but the press will have selectively reported it like this” will contribute to a finding that proves that cancel culture on campus is rife – and those that disagree will contribute to a finding that proves how unhappy many academics are with the culture of cancellation on campus.

It’s also a technique used with reference to staff recruitment:

Q. Some universities ask applicants for faculty positions to submit statements demonstrating their commitment to equity and diversity before they can be considered for a job. Which of the following statements comes closest to your view of this?

0 Social justice concerns should always be prioritized even if it violates academic freedom


10 Academic freedom should always be prioritized even if it means ignoring social justice concerns

Even if the concepts of “social justice concerns” and “academic freedom” were clearer in the question, you’ll see that your only option if you think “well it depends on the issue or circumstance” is to tick something like 4, 5 or 6 – which will naturally emerge as evidence of academic freedom being under threat from social justice warriors.

Fun and games

This one’s fun. Ignore the fast and loose use of the word “administrators” (a neat bit of othering that takes in the Registrar, the Director of IT, the counselling manager and the SU’s CEO). See how freedom of speech is inverted, so that one option can be framed as harmful and the other isn’t?

Q. Thinking about university administrators, which of the following comes closest to your view? a) University administrators (excluding teaching faculty and students) have a duty to be politically neutral in their statements in order to create a welcoming atmosphere for political minorities on campus. b) University administrators should be free to make political statements, even if some students and faculty disagree.

Mind you – if that one’s fun, this one’s positively dangerous. If your correct hunch is that more academics are right wing than left wing, you have to be able to paint a picture of potential harm and personal prejudice somehow. So why not isolate the political persuasion of a group in opposition to the norm you know to prove that problem?

Q. Using a scale that runs from 0 to 10 where 0 means “strongly dislike” and 10 means “strongly like”, how do you feel about right-wing voters?

And this one’s great. Can you spot the odd one out?

Q. As far as you are concerned, what are the three most important issues facing the country at the present time? Please select THREE issues.


Immigration, Economy, Environment, Racism, Unemployment, Cancel culture – limiting freedom of speech, Health care, Education, Police violence, Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic

Pudding proof

Of course, the wording of a single survey that will lead to another round of coverage just in time for a particular stage of scrutiny of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is what it is – boring and tiresome.

But when you add this all up with the digs at decolonisation, critical race theory and bystander training in the Appendix of the DfE paper that sets out what the “freedom of speech” duty is likely to entail, you end up with Orbán-like attacks on liberal democracy and academic freedom rather than defences of it.

As such, while criticism of the Bill has thus far tended to focus on suggesting that the issue shouldn’t be a “priority”, shouldn’t the sector start to take the potential threats it represents more seriously – and put up a bit more of a fight?

8 responses to “The chilling effects of the free speech bill could be very extreme

  1. Really appreciate you taking the time to go through these questions in detail. It really does seem to paint a no win situation – you either confirm there IS a massive culture of fear around censorship in HE, or you confirm there is a massive culture of hysterical liberals wanting to censor others in HE.

    1. I would posit it’s both, with the issue of self censorship further clouding the issue HE is fast becoming a closed sterile environment where very real issues cannot be discussed and debated, and it’s killing a large part of HE’s role in society as a result.

      1. I agree that HE Institutions can be reticent about joining public political discussions. This appears to be due to the hostile environment orchestrated by Government and certain parts of the media. What’s your solution?

  2. This survey, judging from the questions you show here, is as convoluted and ambiguous as the government’s bill itself. Two clauses would have done it:

    1 If you can say it legally, you can say it on campus
    2 It’s an offence to stop someone else inviting a visiting speaker

    Job done.

    1. 1 is wrong. In classrooms universities are responsible for educating their students. It is legal to assert that the earth is flat, but it should not be presented as education.

      2 is also wrong. Universities should stop people from inviting a person on campus to deny the holocaust.

      1. both of them statements that should be allowed and then taken down in argument, as they would be

  3. I have always been of the view that however offensive the views may be, we should hear them and subject them to rigorous evaluation where they will be found seriously wanting. Banning, cancelling or whatever sanction you wish to impose only feeds dog whistle beasts. Only then can be sure of restfully disagreeing without the need for insults, name calling or some more serious, all of which have occurred.

  4. One of the things that gets confused – including here – is the conflation of behaviour and opinion/belief. Now yes of course I understand that drawing a neat line between the two is difficult. But universities and their SUs obviously have carefully drafted behavioural codes that seek to minimise harm to others. Fusing those with cultures which debate uncomfortable ideas is just hard sometimes. Because one person’s “controversial idea” is another’s “this person is trolling us and must understand the impact they’re having”. It would be helpful I think if people could reflect on how hard that is – surely every academic that’s ever taught a seminar gets that that line is hard to navigate/set/tread?

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