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This is not the first government crack down on free speech in universities

As the Westminster government unveils new measures on campus free speech, Evan Smith reminds us that we've been here before.
This article is more than 3 years old

Evan Smith is a Research Fellow in History within the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, Adelaide

The Sunday Telegraph ran a story over the weekend that the Johnson government was taking on “cancel culture”, with Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary highlighting proposed reforms regarding freedom of speech at universities – while the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, took aim at publicly funded heritage projects that were “trying to do Britain down”.

Now as Williamson’s reforms are launched, there are more headlines. “Government set to fine universities who ‘cancel’ people due to their views as ministers ‘defend British history and culture’”, says the Mail, while Sky News tells us that a free speech champion is among proposals to fight “silencing and censoring” in universities.

Williamson’s reforms have been signposted before – with repeated notifications over the last year that the Office for Students (OfS) would take a more proactive role in ensuring freedom of speech was maintained on campus and changes to legislation were imminent which would put the onus on students’ unions to not hinder free speech.

The papers say that the OfS will soon have a government appointed “Free Speech Champion” and sanctions will be imposed upon universities and students’ unions who “restrict speech unlawfully”.

Here we go again on my own

These reforms have been in the making since the Tories made an election promise to protect free speech and academic freedoms at universities and the Johnson government have taken up the culture war against “wokeness” with gusto since being elected in 2019.

The government has tapped into a wider push by conservatives, right-leaning libertarians and “classical liberals” to combat “cancel culture” and the supposed “woke left” agenda that they claim has led to a crisis of free speech in Britain – with similar claims being made in the US, Australia, Canada and France.

Williamson’s imminent changes come after several right wing thinktank reports have claimed that freedom of speech and academic freedom were under threat within British higher education. Despite being criticised for their research methodologies and the claims that they’ve made, these reports have been influential in media and political circles.

The most significant reports have come from Policy Exchange, which produced two between November 2019 and August 2020. In order to “protect” free speech and academic freedom on campus, the Policy Exchange reports made a tranche of suggestions for reforms, including an OfS role to champion free speech and the amendment of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 to include students’ unions as an entity that needed to legally allow free speech to occur unimpeded. Both of which have been flagged as reforms that Williamson will now introduce.

It must be remembered that these proposed reforms go beyond what was recommended by the Joint Committee on Human Rights which conducted a parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech at universities in 2017-18, during the time Jo Johnson was universities minister.

The JCHR report, handed down in early 2018, stated that it “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested” and in its conclusion, recommended only mild reforms.

The most significant was that the newly established Office for Students would take oversight of students’ unions from the Charity Commission and that the OfS would report annually on freedom of speech issues. The Johnson government has seemed to have favoured the more recent Policy Exchange recommendations over those from the JCHR, put forward two years earlier.

Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known

This is not the first time that the Conservatives have sought to legislate against students’ unions who they felt were threatening freedom of speech – and as I explain in my book, in fact there is a long history of such attempts – each surrounded by a familiar set of political and media concerns.

In 1970, at the height of the student movement in Britain which saw protests against Enoch Powell and other right-wing politicians at various universities, the Conservative opposition called on the Labour Education Secretary to introduce safeguards for free speech at universities.

Again in 1974 after the National Union of Students implemented its “no platform” policy, Conservative MPs called on the Wilson government to intervene in the affairs of the students’ unions, which was rejected by the new Labour Education Secretary, Reg Prentice. By 1986, the now Thatcher government was ready to take action, concerned about the student protests against visiting Conservative MPs at numerous universities across the country in 1985-86.

Although these protests took on many forms and some of the most disruptive episodes involved student activists going against the wishes of the students’ union leadership, the government partially blamed the NUS’ “no platform” policy for allowing these protest actions to occur.

The aforementioned Education (No. 2) Act 1986 was introduced to compel universities to ensure that freedom of speech was maintained on campus and that events and speakers were not impeded upon by unruly protestors. Section 43 of the Act demanded that universities, polytechnics and colleges “shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.

Although students’ unions were mentioned, these student bodies have argued since 1986 that they are separate legal entities and fall outside the scope of the Act in this instance. This has been a sticking point for the right since the 1980s and is one of the aspects that the Policy Exchange has recently lobbied around, and thus, Gavin Williamson has indicated that he will act upon.

Another sticking point is the part of section 43 that says “shall such steps as are reasonably practicable”, meaning that universities have had to take other factors, such as public order, into account when allowing speakers or events to go ahead. For example, in 1989-90, the Conservative Association at Liverpool University went to the High Court after the university banned two South African diplomats from speaking.

For the CA, the university taking into consideration the potential for public disorder off-campus was not reasonable and the High Court eventually found that they somewhat agreed, although the police recommendation to not allow the event to proceed (which the university heeded) was also understandable.

As I have shown in my book, free speech does not exist in a vacuum and a push for freedom of speech on campus has to be negotiated with other laws and rights. A guide on freedom of speech at universities produced by the Joint Committee on Human Rights identified nine different Acts that needed to be taken into consideration when inviting external speakers, including the Equality Act 2010, Public Order Act 1986, Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, Terrorism Act 2000 and the Terrorism Act 2006.

And I’ve made up my mind

While the 1986 Act calls for universities to ensure free speech, universities, students’ unions and those invited to speak cannot ignore the legal framework surrounding them.

Even within the realms of lawful speech, students have countered that the freedom of speech cannot supersede all other freedoms, including the freedom from prejudice, harassment and violence. In defence of their ‘no platform’ policy, the NUS distils this argument succinctly:

NUS supports freedom of speech, thought and expression. But NUS opposes those who attempt to utilise this “freedom” in order to remove the freedoms of others. Affording racists and fascists a platform helps them in their search for credibility to promote their messages of hate, which in turn can lead to violence against those that they target.

While the university is a place of intellectual inquiry, it cannot be a place where racism and fascism, as well as sexism, homophobia and transphobia are deemed suitable ideas to be expressed and worthy of engagement with. The university is a place of teaching, learning, research and intellectual engagement, and everybody that partakes in this needs to do so in a safe and prejudice-free environment. The kind of free speech that would allow these ideas to be aired threatens this.

The government champions “free speech” and appeals to the concept of universities as veritable market places of ideas, but this appeal to reason and debate is able to be exploited by racists and other purveyors of hate speech, who act in bad faith, using the liberal notion of freedom of speech to suggest that their ideas of credible and should be taken seriously.

I ain’t wasting no more time

Certain controversialists may revel in this push by the government to remove barriers to freedom of speech at universities as below the surface, this free speech vigilance can act as a Trojan horse for hateful ideas. As Priyamvada Gopal and Gavan Titley argue, “fomented free-speech controversies hinge almost exclusively on the right to express discriminatory, hateful or discredited viewpoints that explicitly target racial and sexual minorities”.

As this blog is published, the Department for Education has not published the detail of Williamson’s proposed reforms, but all signs indicate that this is another advance in the Johnson government’s culture war against “wokeness”, encouraging right-wing politicians, commentators and scholars, rather a genuine effort to widen public and academic discourse – as the concurrent remonstration of critical historians of the British Empire reveals. The question must be asked – what kind of free speech does the government want and for whom?

Evan Smith’s No Platform A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech is published by Routledge.

5 responses to “This is not the first government crack down on free speech in universities

  1. Freedom of speech is a double edged sword, the clear hatred by certain ‘high caste’ academics for ‘white’ British culture/people is openly celebrated, yet as a Dalit when I hear such hatred I’m more reminded of Fascism than equality.

    Todays radical left use the ‘woke’ useful idiots much as the communists of the cold war manipulated the susceptible liberals through propaganda and have sought to suppress others who might truly awaken them enough that they might question the path they are being led down and the potential dangers at it’s end. The calls for ‘truth commissions’ and ‘re-education’ being espoused by some are all too familiar, I’d suggest reading ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ for some insight into where such ‘useful idiots’ previously ended up.

    Academia is now almost exclusively the domain of the ‘radical’ left in it’s various forms, ‘woke’ covers a lot of things, yet when discussing what it actually means few seem to understand it’s been hijacked by those who wish to increase racial hate along with all the other intersectional differences possible, reducing people to disenfranchised individuals fighting each other as well as greater society.

    Time to consider which kind of state you wish to live in, one with hard left authoritarians in control and no freedom of speech beyond the party line, or a more balanced and open minded one where everyone has the right to speak feely and be debated with? The Tories may be no friends of free speech, but neither are those that are leading the woke crusade.

  2. “While the university is a place of intellectual inquiry, it cannot be a place where racism and fascism, as well as sexism, homophobia and transphobia are deemed suitable ideas to be expressed and worthy of engagement with. The university is a place of teaching, learning, research and intellectual engagement, and everybody that partakes in this needs to do so in a safe and prejudice-free environment. The kind of free speech that would allow these ideas to be aired threatens this.”

    One obvious problem with this piece is that a significant minority of activist academics – including the article’s author – have labelled over half the population as either racists, sexist or transphobic. Many mainstream (and certainly not phobic in any way) views are targeted by ‘woke’ academia – see for example the outrageous treatment of gender critical feminists on campus. Just imagine if the well known extremist JK Rowling was invited to talk to lit students! Anyone familiar with twitter will know that dissenters who air their views are frequently are labelled far right, haters, and just today in one case ‘blackshirts’ by salaried academics.

    The idea that those academics, or governments, should roll over and accept this is risible. These are universities, not political parties with a ‘line’. It’s a shame the government has had to intervene, but as long as that intervention is there to protect individual rights (for all views) it should be supported.

    1. Yeah – so you have the freedom to speak. You don’t have the freedom not to be called a racist, homophobe or transphobe. If people want to call JK Rowling a hater or a fascist, they may do so. Academic freedom will remain totally intact.

  3. There is another issue, under academic freedom where we/I have been here before.

    As an OU academic in the 1980s, I was involved with courses investigated for Marxist bias, following complaints, we understood from a handful of students and one right-wing colleague. Balance that against over 20,000 students and some 200,000 casual listeners and viewers to course broadcasts. Despite a ‘not guilty’ verdict, draconian controls were out on course production, so that all units and individual programmes had to be internally balanced – no possibility of one unit with one view and another putting a different case, or two programmes doing the same, but transmitted a week apart, by which time thousands of students might have been radicalised. For one radio programme, the dean of the education faculty was banned from contributing because she, like me at the time, was a member of the Labour Party. The BBC was very scared of sanctions, so I had to endure a repugnant right-wing individual whose conditions required there be no editing, challenge or comment on his contribution. The external assessors – needed for every programme and unit under production – said the programme had a right wing bias and advised against transmission. I said that the students would recognise false facts – the claim of no reduction in education funding under the Thatcher governments – and apply appropriate scepticism. Let the view be expressed, but, as with Trump, ask ‘where is the evidence; here is ours’. Another programme dealt with the 1988 Great Education Reform Bill [known as GERBill] and had the Chief education officer of Cheshire, John Tomlinson, a notorious revolutionary in an authority dominated by Militant [not] who had some critical comments. It went out about 2 am, and we arrived on campus to a message from the DES demanding a right of reply. We had to explain that they had sat in our classroom, but the technology, then, did not allow for questions to the lecturer, but that issues could be discussed with their tutor and their view expressed in assignments.

    Now, I hear, we are to be stopped from criticising capitalism, which has been an unchallengeable success recently, and exposing less savoury aspects of our glorious past. Are we going back to Section 28 as well?

    Ian McNay
    Professor Emeritus
    University of Greenwich

  4. Despite the lack of evidence, we are at a critical point of failing the right to the freedom of speech in UK universities. Is this political trope to support a populist variation on the anti-elitist theme that has brought so much success in recent years? (cf. The French minister’s attacks on universities as Islamo-leftist in an attempt to upstage the threatening hard right in the forthcoming elections; red walls, etc.) Is this a govt priority when students have paid a billion pounds this academic year on accommodation they haven’t used, when govt approved algorithms were created to produce a bias on access to universities vis a vis public/private school and then got found out? And other pandemic problems facing students and existential threats to universities (US equity funds to buy UK universities). An often quoted authority for conservatives is Karl Popper; I recommend his paradox of freedom of speech. All empirical evidence suggests Sir Karl was correct. N.B. A paradox is not a difficult problem, not a contradiction but a self-contradiction. His resolution was a Hobbesian one of who rules? I look forward to Toby Young or Baroness Fox as the new champion for the OFS.

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