The two big campus culture stories making the news over the past week here both concerned the University of Bristol.
One was the “news” that the national anthem would no longer feature on the playlist of its graduation ceremonies. Oliver Dowden generated days and days of silly season coverage back in 2020 when, as Culture Secretary, he intervened in the row about the potential removal of both Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from the last night of the proms:
Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory are highlights of the Last Night of the Proms
Share concerns of many about their potential removal and have raised this with @BBC
Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it
— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) August 24, 2020
Now as Deputy Prime Minister, he waded into what was originally a Sun story once the Mail had nicked it:
If Bristol University are too ashamed of their British heritage, presumably they no longer want to be subsidised by British taxpayer? https://t.co/eGgDZl5iI4
— Oliver Dowden (@OliverDowden) December 8, 2023
Pretty much everyone except GB News was astonished that “God Save the King” was a feature to be abolished – even a phalanx of recent Bristol graduates professed to have forgotten that apparently, until last year, a student used to lead a rendition after certificates had been handed out.
“It was only banter”
The other big story concerned a pro-Palestine former academic that called for somebody to “blow up” a venue hosting a Jewish Labour Movement event. Harriet Bradley, a former Labour Councillor, “passionate socialist” and Emeritus sociology professor at the university, made the comment in a now-deleted social media post.
Bradley, whose X account profile says she “hate[s] Tories” and backs the “Free Palestine” movement, also said just a few days ago:
— Harriet Bradley (@Cllrharrietbrad) December 3, 2023
The University of Bristol’s JSoc described her comments as “antisemitic” and “disgraceful”, adding:
— Union of Jewish Students (@UJS_UK) December 7, 2023
When asked about the tweet by the Jewish Chronicle, Bradley said that per post was just “banter” and a joke:
But I do realise now it was in bad taste and would like to apologise to all those offended or frightened by it.
She went on to say she “deplored” the way that Labour has been “taken over” by pro-Zionist people and that left-wing Jews “have been kicked out”.
By Friday, reminding the media that she’d retired from the university in 2010, the university had deemed the post as unacceptable – and in response, said it had withdrawn the “Emeritus and Honorary Status” – with immediate effect.
The story will have done little to quell the growing media and political perception of a major and significant antisemitism problem on UK campuses.
Parts of the press have played along with the perception that UK campuses have had a “free speech” problem for some time – what’s notable is that on this issue, even outlets that have tended to be more sceptical clearly think something’s up, with universities minister Robert Halfon repeatedly arguing that there’s a major issue to be tackled.
Hence on Thursday, Radio 4 Today’s Amol Rajan introduced his item about the appearance of three Ivy league Presidents before a US Congress hearing on campus antisemitism as follows:
…their comments (and you’re about to hear one) have gone viral, and they’ve been picked up as an example of how prejudice has infected the university sector really on both sides of the Atlantic.
A problem in the Ivy
The story here is that last Tuesday, Elizabeth Magill (President at University of Pennsylvania), Claudine Gay (President at Harvard) and Sally Kornbluth (President at M.I.T.) took part in a five hour session on their universities’ response to antisemitic incidents since Oct 7 held by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Towards the end Republican Suzanne Houchin recounted a string of incidents concerning student reps and protests, and their impact on Jewish students – not dissimilar to those that have been quoted as taking place in the UK.
Then she handed off to another Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who picked up that students had chanted support for “intifada” – arguing that many Jews hear it as a call for violence against them. She then put the interpretation to each President in turn:
Calling for the genocide of Jews… does that constitute bullying or harassment?
If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.
Stefanik responded, “So the answer is yes?” Magill said, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.” Stefanik exclaimed:
That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?
The removal of the context from the clips that went viral won’t have helped, and nor did what looked like a smile as Magill explained – for some that symbolised the slack of seriousness with which US academia is taking is the issue, for others an unwise reaction that let on that she knew that Stefanik had trapped her.
The following day, Magill issued a video post on Facebook attempting to clarify her views:
In that moment, I was focused on the university’s long-standing policies – aligned with the US Constitution – which say that speech alone is not punishable… I was not focused on – but should have been – the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil, plain and simple.
Then on Saturday Scott L. Bok, Upenn’s governing body chair, said in an email to Penn staff and students that Magill had “voluntarily tendered her resignation.” Less than an hour later, Bok announced that he’d also resigned. Stefanik responded with “One down. Two to go”, adding:
This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions in America. This forced resignation of the president of Penn is the bare minimum of what is required.
Shifting political sands
For the Republicans, the events of last week and the growing concerns surrounding antisemitism on campus have been an opportunity to persuade American voters in an election year that they’ve been right all along about political correctness, “social justice” and “woke-ism” taking over education.
What’s been interesting is the way in which previously sceptical Democrat leaders have agreed this time – a spokesman for President Biden said calls for genocide are “counter to everything this country stands for”, and Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor Josh Shapiro also joined calls for Magill’s firing, calling her statement “unacceptable” and adding:
It should not be hard to condemn genocide.
Even prominent liberal-leaning business leaders have said they had underestimated what was happening on campus – with OpenAI boss (and major Democratic donor) Sam Altman taking to X to say:
for a long time i said that antisemitism, particularly on the american left, was not as bad as people claimed.
i’d like to just state that i was totally wrong.
i still don’t understand it, really. or know what to do about it.
but it is so fucked.
— Sam Altman (@sama) December 8, 2023
But perhaps even more fascinating is the way in which the claims of hypocrisy in the Presdients’ responses are now playing out in terms of what should happen next.
On the one side there are those arguing that the libertarian right can’t have it both ways – that perhaps clumsily they were responding to calls for less censorship on campus, and more free speech however uncomfortable or outrageous, and applying those rules accordingly.
On the other, that hypocrisy claim is flipped. Echoing any number of commentators across the US, in the Sunday Times this weekend Matthew Syed argued that the response was a symbol of those Presidents being fearful of the ideologies that have taken over their campuses:
We all saw that commitment to free speech when these same people connived in the non-platforming of speakers with right-leaning views, a trend that has exploded over the last decade. No, this wasn’t about free speech; it was about fear. These presidents were revealing dread of their own student bodies. And who can blame them? Professors who have violated woke strictures have been hounded out of their jobs (a female academic who said there are two sexes recently had to take a leave of absence after weeks of persecution); graffiti has been daubed on their homes; some have endured assaults. It is any wonder that a majority at universities admit to self-censoring?
Even more confusingly, some ultra-libertarians argue that the way to solve the hypocrisy difference is through less censorship in general. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression – which developed university Free Speech rankings long before Spiked! copied the idea in the UK – waded in behind the Presidents, arguing that there are only narrow exceptions to protections for free speech, including a true threat of violence, incitement to imminent unlawful action, or speech that meets the legal standard for discriminatory harassment:
A lot of the speech that we’re seeing on campus now wouldn’t fall into these exceptions and should be protected…so the university presidents are right… The pressure should be on them to protect free speech consistently, not expand the censorship.
And Harvard’s own Steven Pinker has seen an opportunity to defend the Presidents’ comments as a way to advance a wider pro-free speech reform agenda, ending everything from “heckler’s vetoes” to classroom invasions, intimidations, and assaults:
The wrong way for the elite universities to dig themselves out their reputational hole: restrict speech even more. Instead:
1. Clear & coherent free speech policy.
2. Institutional neutrality: Universities are forums, not protagonists.
3. Force prohibited: No more heckler’s… https://t.co/aQbjGgxhH3— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) December 7, 2023
Free speech within the law?
The legal context in the US used to be very different in the UK – but has been getting closer as the Westminster government has moved to protect campus freedom of speech “within the law”, tempered only by clearly definable harassment or hate speech, or incitement to commit or explicit support for terrorism.
In the US context, First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh articulates the line between prohibited harassment and protected speech as the difference between “one-to-one speech” and “one-to-many speech.” And legal commentator David Lat explains further:
If I repeatedly send antisemitic emails and texts to a single Jewish student, that is far more likely to constitute harassment than if I set up an antisemitic website available to the entire world.
The New York Times’ David French put it like this:
What we’ve seen on campus is a mixture of protected antisemitic (as well as anti-Islamic) speech and prohibited harassment. Chanting “globalize the intifada” or “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” at a public protest is protected speech. Tearing down another person’s posters is not. (My rights to free speech do not include a right to block another person’s speech.) Trapping Jewish students in a library while protesters pound on library doors is not protected speech either.
In a different legal system, we don’t yet know where the lines might be drawn in UK, partly because we’ve not yet seen many cases come to a conclusion that concern student conduct in this space, and partly because universities have been careful to avoid being drawn on the detail in the same way that the three Presidents were last week.
Nor, in the context of coming implementation of both tough new anti-harassment standards and regulation arising from the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, do we know where the Office for Students (OfS) might draw that line.
Crucially, we also don’t know the extent to which it will expect universities to expect students to draw the line appropriately in their proactive education efforts with students, encompassed in both the harassment duty and the new duty to “promote” free speech.
But unlike in the US, England’s regulator is soon going to have to adjudicate on such matters as an “alternative dispute resolution” service to the courts. OfS and its Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom are going to have to say something at some point.
Drawing a line
So far Arif Ahmed had tended to give quotes to the press that describe both ends of the see-saw – so here, for example, he said that universities “should uphold free speech within the law for everyone”, but that that did not include “discrimination against, or harassment of, Jewish students”.
When he self-launched his appointment in The Times, he also said something similar to the Steven Pinker “‘universities are forums, not protagonists” line above:
University is not a club. It is not a political lobby. It is not a seminary. It is not a “brand”. It exists to seek and speak truth, whatever it costs and whoever it upsets. Therefore, without freedom to explore controversial or “offensive” ideas, a university is nothing.
That, though, was also an article whose original version said that adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism “must not restrict legitimate political speech and protest”, only to be edited 24 hours later to add that since previously expressing those concerns…
I have seen at Cambridge how in practice the working definition can accommodate robust support for free speech and academic freedom. More recently, the report of the parliamentary task force on antisemitism in higher education indicates that none of the 56 university adopters who were asked reported that its adoption had in any way restricted freedom of speech.
He’d struggle to avoid arguments of that sort now.
No-one is arguing that “verbal and physical abuse, graffiti” or even “Palestinian flags draped over Jewish students’ cars” are anything other than prohibited harassment. But at some point, Ahmed is going to have to face to similar questions to those posed by Elise Stefanik to Elizabeth Magill, Claudine Gay and Sally Kornbluth – about protests, demos, phrases like “intifada” and “from the river to the sea”, the practical applicability of the IHRA definition and whether “context” really does matter.
He’ll doubtless be much more careful about his facial expressions than Elizabeth Magill. But it would be a miracle if his answers don’t upset someone – and both universities and students really do need answers ahead of his new powers coming into force next year.