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.