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The real free speech problem in universities

The real problem that universities have with freedom of speech is that they are no good at talking about it, argues Paul Greatrix
This article is more than 1 year old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Universities really do have a problem with free speech.

However, it is not the problem that we are frequently accused of, that we stifle it or are politically biased in the free speech that we permit to take place on campus. Rather our problem is that we do not promote free speech anywhere near enough.

This has enabled the powerful view to take hold that somehow universities are against free speech or, at best, are reluctantly tolerant of it and selective in our support. In reality this is very far from the truth as universities are, have always been and I hope always will be, genuine bastions of free speech. Indeed universities are, and always should be, the central places in civil society where free speech enjoys its strongest support.

There is though, we absolutely have to acknowledge, a significant perceptual problem which is in part down to the sector’s reluctance explicitly and loudly to champion free speech.

A quiet life

A recent paper from HEPI proposed a phenomenon described as “quiet no-platforming” whereby those organising university speaker events simply and quietly decide not to proceed because it is all too difficult – perhaps because there would be a big controversy or they fear they would be targeted for issuing an invitation – and suggested that this represented a new challenge for free speech in universities.

There is possibly something in this but I would suggest it is just one of many reasons, most of them entirely innocuous and nothing at all do with any stifling of free speech, why speakers may not end up on a platform. The HEPI paper is based on a fairly narrow survey of debating societies – covering only a small part of the wide range of external speaker activity – and the fact that around 75 per cent of the cases identified are at Oxford or Cambridge does rather cast doubt on the wider applicability of “quiet no-platforming” as a phenomenon.

Nevertheless the HEPI paper does have the merit of at least being based on an actual survey of real activity, albeit narrowly defined. It is genuinely surprising how little insight there has been in the free speech debate from real data and experience of speaker activity (other than in a handful of unrepresentative high profile cases) and how these things work in reality.

I would suggest though that as well as “quiet no-platforming” there is also its counterpart of “noisy platforming”: this is the scenario whereby someone who wants to make a name for themselves on campus or to promote their student society makes it known that they are inviting a big name controversial speaker, precisely in order to stir up a fuss, create a buzz and, if the talk ever actually goes ahead, generate an audience.

It doesn’t happen that often but when it does it is usually less about ensuring an otherwise marginal voice is heard than the organiser trying to make a splash on their own account.

Big names on campus

In the 36 years since the 1986 Act – which was intended to address the core issue of speakers (at that time primarily government ministers) being denied a platform – staff in universities and students’ unions have become used to dealing with these issues. There has been plenty of comment from the armchair culture warriors (which is why we have legislation now going through the Lords) but the reality is that tens of thousands of speaker events happen every year without incident. Such events are part of the routine business of university life with students or staff inviting speakers, be they academic, cultural or political, to speak and debate at meetings and fora of various types. Free speech is a commonplace and organic part of campus life.

While “quiet no-platforming” might be one explanation of why some speeches do not proceed, there could be any one of 101 other reasons why a speaker does not end up speaking. For example, when our enthusiastic society secretary realises they are required to give appropriate notice to the students’ union and/or the university and they do actually have to fill in some paperwork, it can sometimes put them off. Other reasons might be that the speaker has not even accepted the invitation anyway and for a big name there might also be issues about accommodation (will the Britannia or Travelodge be ok? No it won’t, there is barely a high-profile speaker in the land who will turn up if you offer them this), travel, subsistence expenses, or even the expectation of a fee.

Big name speakers are hard to secure at the best of times – booking a date is inherently problematic – the draw of the Oxford Union is always going to be greater than that of a wet Wednesday in Stoke (or Bristol or Liverpool or Middlesborough). Any of these logistical issues can scupper a speech before it has even been advertised and that’s before you get to the formalities around other arrangements such as ticketing, security, health and safety matters and the format of the event.

Security concerns can be a real issue, particularly with controversial speakers. Universities have a responsibility for the safety of speakers and audiences and making the necessary arrangements can be challenging and costly. Many years ago it was not unheard of for universities to use the potential cost of security and police involvement as reasons for events not to go ahead and sometimes even requiring the relevant student society to underwrite costs. While this approach is no more the security challenge remains and, except in the most serious situations of risk, universities will still have to ensure the event proceeds even if there are noisy and difficult to manage demonstrations.

Following the rules

We often hear about the bureaucracy associated with booking a speaker as if this is somehow problematic. However, in reality it is pretty straightforward and thousands of events across universities seem to go ahead without difficulty every year. The reality is then that whilst there may be quite a few reasons why certain speakers do not end up on platforms at universities it is rarely down to the institutions themselves or students’ unions somehow finding ways to prevent it happening. Filling in a form is among the least of the organisational obstacles to getting that big name speaker. Life and logistics are more likely obstacles.

The data demonstrates that very few events are actually cancelled. To be precise, the OfS found that in 2017-18, of 62,094 external speaker event requests in England just 53 were rejected by universities or students’ unions. And the formal returns for 2019-20 showed that only 0.21 per cent of event or speaker requests at English universities were rejected.

Regardless though of the reasons for platforms turning out to be unoccupied universities have to do much better in terms of acting as the genuine champions and most passionate advocates for free speech. Despite our outstanding track record in terms of free speech we seem reluctant to take credit for it or to stress its importance. This is possibly because of the way in which the free speech debate has evolved in recent years but we have duties as the real bastions of free speech. In a civilised society universities are the places where ideas come first not personalities – the places where people debate not with fists or soundbites but with rational arguments.

It is important to be clear about this point, you don’t get to speak at a university just because you want to. As is noted in the University of Nottingham policy on Free Speech and Academic Freedom, the University is not obliged to provide a platform to individuals who have no recognised expertise in a field of academic inquiry nor does it have to provide speaking opportunities to those who wish to promote views that are manifestly at odds with empirically verifiable objective facts. As the policy puts it, the University is not a public square.

Say it loud

Finally as none other than Nick Hillman recently put it

It is because universities are so important that they have found themselves at the centre of the storm about wokery and cancel culture and at the heart of the so-called ‘free speech crisis’. Even people who rarely visit a university campus understand that what goes on there matters to the whole of society.

So, we are going to have suck up the consequences of this new legislation – we will have to make it work (hoping at least the rough edges are removed by their Lordships) and fit it into our existing procedures which we know already provide well for ensuring free speech on campuses. We have a huge amount of experience in this regard. But universities can’t leave the free speech agenda to those who claim it as their own and yet seem to spend most of their time attacking the sector.

Universities do have a problem with free speech then but it is actually primarily about our reluctance to embrace ownership of the issue and allowing the perception to take hold that we are not wholly supportive of it. To challenge this universities have to be louder and bolder in asserting our position as the genuine champions of free speech. We have to get a lot better at shouting about the importance of free speech and our central role in promoting it.

This article represents the personal view of the author.

8 responses to “The real free speech problem in universities

  1. “The data demonstrates that very few events are actually cancelled. To be precise, the OfS found that in 2017-18, of 62,094 external speaker event requests in England just 53 were rejected by universities or students’ unions.” Does this include events that were approved, but cancelled, sometimes only minutes before they were supposed to start, on the advice of the Police (in our case the anti-terror Police who had followed individuals of concern out from London to our campus)?

    Other issue’s involving the silencing of Trade Union Rep’s by University managements (even those with ‘Academic Freedom’), and the excessive use of NDA’s by Universities to inhibit free speech also need addressing.

  2. I completely agree with the author about the perception problem; there is definitely more that universities, and the sector as a whole, can do to convey the (often considerable) efforts that are made to uphold freedom of speech. I even alluded to it when writing the OfS’ 2018 Board Paper on free speech; ‘Our experience to date is that providers are working hard to be compliant with their duty under section 43 of the 1986 Education Act’. More information and communications about the effort that is expended to support free speech seems to be the missing part of the jigsaw; only rarely does such information seem to reach the public domain and enter mainstream discourse.

  3. I think the article repeats a number of misapprehensions.

    First, the author states: ‘It is important to be clear about this point, you don’t get to speak at a university just because you want to.’ Well, yes of course, but no one has ever argued this. People are invited – by staff or students.

    I think the piece may be on shaky ground stating that the ‘University is not obliged to provide a platform to individuals who have no recognised expertise in a field of academic inquiry nor does it have to provide speaking opportunities to those who wish to promote views that are manifestly at odds with empirically verifiable objective facts. As the policy puts it, the University is not a public square.’

    How far do you take that? Does the university decide for individual academics who does and does not have requisite expertise? Does the author of the piece have expertise in the issue of academic freedom? The caveat that academic freedom protections cover only an academic’s ‘field of expertise’ has been removed from the Higher Education Bill going through Parliament, so presumably, if passed, Nottingham will have to widen its view of academic freedom and change its policy. That seems to me a good thing, not to be dismissed mischief from ‘armchair culture warriors’.

    ‘Noisy platforming’ is a moot point. Platforming becomes noisy only because of groups of activists trying to no platform, as in the case of Helen Joyce at Cambridge, and numerous others. I am sure most free speech supporters would refer to go back to their disciplines and not have to worry about threats and censorious pressures when they are doing their job. The inviters are not the issue. Censorious opposition to widely held, and occasional left field, viewpoints is – principally on sex / gender.

    Universities do not need to ‘own’ academic freedom. They need to cultivate and affirm it. That means empowering staff and students through a clear, foundational statement in favour of academic freedom, and institutional neutrality on the issues of the day so staff and students can learn, think and decide without feeling they are arguing against their employer or institution on issues like sex / gender.

    1. Some well made points, which Universities will no doubt try to continue to ignore.

      We had invited an Israeli Academic a few years ago to give a closed to subject post grad dept lecture, what we ended up with was a protest made up largely of London based Islamic protestors being bussed to our campus with women and children deployed in the front line of the protest as human shields screaming abuse and threats. The lecture was cancelled as the University could not protect the lecturer nor students on the advice of the anti-terror Police, also out of London, so much for Academic freedom…

  4. Honestly, if this is a true representation of a registrar’s views on the complex problems of Academic Freedom in the a world of global lockstep regulatory capture, then there is no hope for universities at all. Ironically, I actually suspect that this ‘blog’ is just another symptom of fake news in the ongoing dystopian war. And if this comment isn’t published, that wont be any surprise either!

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