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What students really think about freedom of expression

Students are concerned about freedom of speech - but in wider society, not their universities. Jonathan Grant and Kirstie Hewlett explore the findings of a new study
This article is more than 4 years old

Jonathan Grant is director of Different Angles and a contributing editor of Wonkhe

Kirstie Hewlett is a Research Associate at the Policy Institute, King’s College London. Her work explores a range of social policy issues, particularly relating to social cohesion and issues of division.

Freedom of expression in universities is subject to a complex array of legislation, but the legal theory often runs up against a messier reality.

In practice, universities constantly have to make a trade-off between freedom of speech and freedom from hate, and have to strike a balance between the right to protest and the right to be safe. A new study on student and public attitudes towards freedom of expression by the Policy Institute at King’s College London reveals some of these complexities in how this trade-off can be dealt with on campus.

Part of what makes these tensions so difficult to resolve is that students in the UK do not share a single, homogeneous view on freedom of expression: where some students favour intervention from their institution, others resist it in all but extreme cases. The study draws on responses from a representative sample of over 2,000 students, allowing detailed statistical analysis of subgroups within the student population.

Activist, Libertarian… or just Contented?

This revealed three clear clusters of attitudes. The majority – which accounts for 56 per cent of the student population – are middle-of-the-roaders who do not have strong views on freedom of expression and are broadly “Contented” (as we called them) with current policies and practices in universities. Then there are two minority groups, which we refer to as ‘Activists’ and ‘Libertarians’, who differ considerably in the type of culture they would prefer to see on campus and the actions they consider appropriate for their institution to take in order to protect freedom of expression. These two groups make up 23 per cent and 20 per cent of the student population respectively.

Activist students believe strongly that they and others are free to express their views at their university, and that their university is taking seriously the need to protect students from hatred. They feel able to protest and seem knowledgeable about their rights and the structures in place to support this, exhibiting earned trust in their institution’s policies and actions to protect freedom of expression.

Libertarian students, on the other hand, are much more ambivalent. They do not believe that it is a university’s place to shield people from intolerant or offensive ideas. They feel that safe space policies or “safetyism” in universities poses a threat to freedom of expression and oppose the suppression of demonstrations or rallies against the airing of political views that are unpopular.

Contrary to stereotypes, this group of students is not a silenced group of right-leaning students, but is notably bipartisan. While Libertarians are made up of more Conservative and Brexit Party supporters compared to the sample overall, it is notable that over half of the students who fall within this group support Labour, the Lib Dems or Greens (per cent), and 65 per cent would vote Remain in a second EU referendum.

The coexistence of these two groups has important implications for policy. As illustrated in the figure below, these two minority groups are polarised, in particular, on the extent to which their university should intervene in matters of freedom of expression and whether they feel current policy creates a campus culture that is supportive of an open exchange of views.

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Are campuses polarised?

The largest degree of polarisation was for the statement “Free speech and robust debate are well protected in my university”. Here net agreement for the Activists was +76 per cent vs -3 per cent for the Libertarians. In fact, over half of Libertarian students feel that free speech is under threat in their university. Similarly, net agreement that it is important to be part of a university community where students are not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas was +51 per cent for the Activists and -18 per cent for the Libertarians.

The two groups also differ substantially in the type of response they would like to see from their institution. As illustrated in the second group of statements, Activist students are broadly supportive of their institution taking action to protect freedom of expression – and this seems to be shaped by positive experiences. For example, two-thirds of Activists agree that their university manages student protests fairly – 18 percentage points higher than the overall average.

Yet Libertarian students differ considerably in their attitude towards these measures, placing more conditional trust in their institution to intervene to protect freedom of expression. They resist intervention from their university’s administration in all but extreme cases, such as protecting students from hate speech and racism.

The two groups do, however, hold similar views towards acts taken by students to counter offensive or intolerant viewpoints. For example, 33 per cent of Activists and 31 per cent of Libertarians agree or strongly agree with the statement ‘It is sometimes appropriate to shout down speakers at my university’ (compared to 22 per cent of the majority Contented population). Likewise, 30 per cent and 33 per cent of Activist and Libertarians agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views. (Again 22 per cent of the Contented agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.)

The distinct differences between these three groups make it hard to build consensus around policies and practices that balance a university’s role to protect freedom of expression while keeping students safe from harm.On the one hand, universities have to navigate an array of contradicting legislation, requiring them balance the “four freedoms” of free speech, academic freedom, freedom from hate and the freedom to protest. On the other hand, they face fragmented attitudes within their own student bodies. It is a Gordian knot with no loophole.

2 responses to “What students really think about freedom of expression

  1. I would like to compare the numbers stated here to this article:

    But that would mean subscribing to The Telegraph, which I’m not going to do. In any case, Joanna Williams writes “New research from the think tank Policy Exchange suggests that fewer than half of students consistently support free speech. Two fifths claim to be in favour of censorship and the “no-platforming” of controversial speakers.” ”

    I don’t see much of a problem on campus in terms of sheer numbers; but a few problematic incidents, or characters of whatever stripe, can cause a lot of bother.

    And as ever I am less concerned with well-advertised and prominent speakers, and more concerned with how this plays out in the daily lives of students.

  2. The good news is you can read the Policy Exchange report for free – but I wouldn’t advise it. Their questions were really slanted – so, for example their second question was:

    “Feminist Germaine Greer, who believes post-operative transgender men are not women, sparked outrage in 2015 when she was scheduled to speak at Cardiff university. The university’s women’s officer created a petition which garnered over 2400 signatures and its women’s society campaigned for her to be ‘no-platformed’. Greer subsequently cancelled her appearance at the university. The university should have stepped in to overrule the anti-Greer campaigners and guaranteed Greer the right to speak.”

    This ignores that the university *did* ignore the protestors, Greer did speak.

    Once you’ve set up a straw man like this, 500 self-selecting students were given this question:

    “When in doubt, which policy should your university support? a) prioritise free speech, even if this makes people upset; b) prioritise emotional safety, even if this limits free speech; c) don’t know (amalgamation of three experiments above and weighted by gender)”

    It was this that gathered the headlines – but 52% of the students said (a) ‘free speech’.

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