Recently, I’ve read a number of articles arguing that there are currently few (if any) freedom of speech issues arising from students’ unions and university campus culture.
One article here on Wonkhe refers to ‘free speech hysteria’, and another argues that the issue is talked-up as part of a conspiracy of libertarians, from left and right. Similarly, a recent article in THE argues that there is no real issue because national NUS ‘no platform’ policy only applies to a tiny number of extreme groups and is rarely applied.
Academics that I’ve spoken to recently have argued that all that is going on is students exercising their freedom to invite who they want – no big deal. Others argue that students’ unions are membership clubs, and while they may get it wrong on occasion, are entitled to have rules for and decided by their members – no issue, and no case for calling it censorship.
So how is it that some people deem concern over free speech on campus to be a minor issue, when others such as Tom Slater, Nick Cohen, Rod Liddle, Peter Tatchell, Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah, deem it to be one of great concern? I think it is worth looking at recent cases to see how campus culture has changed, and how a more censorious culture can operate in practice.
Outspoken UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge was invited in 2017 by a student group (Liberate the Debate) to speak at the University of Sussex. The students’ union deemed him to pose a ‘medium / high risk’ of contravening their safe space policy (as reported in the Telegraph). As per the policy, they made his talk conditional on him supplying them with his speech for vetting, and on the students’ union determining the format of the event. Unsurprisingly, he refused this (would anyone agree to having their speech vetted?), and as a result was not allowed to speak. Eventually the group had to organise their discussion off-campus, outside of the remit of the safe space policy.
Is this censorship? For me, absolutely. Freedom to speak, and equally freedom to listen, agree, disagree or argue back, are at the very root of democracy and the university. Just as important as Etheridge’s right to speak is the right of his opponents to attend, should they choose to do so, put across their points and questions, to convince or be convinced. If we say there is no issue here, are we not in danger of normalising a culture in which a group of adults in a university are deterred from inviting, organising and listening to an elected representative because they have views that may be controversial to some?
Some argue that this is simply students deciding who to and who not to invite – ‘no one is entitled to a platform’. Yet Etheridge was invited by a group of students. It was another group – the students’ union – with the authority to vet the speech, who subsequently acted as arbiters of what others can organise and hear.
Others I’ve spoken to about the issue regard the students’ union as a private club, and of course private clubs have rules as conditions of membership. But students’ unions have authority over far more than private matters. They are involved in how their parent university acts as a part of the public sphere – the realm of competing evidence, policies and ideas that relies upon the willingness and ability of people to speak freely and listen, judge and be judged. Etheridge’s case is indicative of a threat posed to this important feature of university life.
While the case is striking, it is not an outlier. Indeed UKIP speakers have faced similar problems before, such as being no-platformed at the University of Derby in 2014. It is indicative in many ways of a significant cultural change, whereby an overly cautious and censorious orientation towards speech is formalised through lengthy policies and enacted by committees, all drawing on a rhetoric of ‘safety’.
This culture is manifest in different ways. ‘Safe space’ was also invoked by the small number of people who complained about a speaking engagement of feminist Heather Brunskell-Evans (at her own place of work) last year, the complaints coming after she criticised some transgender rights campaigners on a Radio 4 discussion shortly before the date of her speaking engagement. Her talk was cancelled by the organisers as a result. One London university students’ union employs ‘safe space marshals’ to police student meetings in situ, including a recent talk by MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. I am convinced such a job title would have been regarded as either satire or Orwellian even just a decade ago. Women’s rights activist Maryam Namazie was initially no-platformed at one university (a decision later rescinded), and at another had to deal with students disrupting her event throughout, at one point repeating the phrase “safe space” as she spoke. In the latter case the university Feminist Society voiced their support for those trying to silence Namazie.
Peter Tatchell was not no-platformed in Canterbury in 2016, as some have claimed – I was present. Yet, the refusal of the NUS representative to share a platform with him betrayed an unwillingness to debate his views, as well as – arguably – an attempt to no-platform him on the basis that ‘it’s him or me on the platform’. Neither is healthy in a university. Ironically, Tatchell’s misdeed was to have signed a letter in favour of free speech for Germaine Greer, taken as complicity in the latter’s alleged transphobia. Tatchell is not the only person to be accused of agreeing with views he does not hold, simply on the basis that he has supported people’s right to articulate those views.
Why is there a greater sensitivity to speech and speakers today amongst campus activists? John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that authorities and individuals should not have the right to limit freedom of speech, unless that speech leads directly to the harm of another. It seems that the harm principle is now being extended to include the taking of offence, something Mill, and society generally up until relatively recently, regarded as unjustified. The scope of offence taking can be, as the above examples suggest, very wide. Who would have predicted that a suggestive pop song – Blurred Lines – would become an object of censorship, when students’ unions have been playing suggestive pop songs since pop music and students’ unions have existed?
I – for one – do not welcome government interference in the life of universities, but neither can university professionals be surprised at the government’s approach given the apparent unwillingness at times to be firmer in upholding free speech on campus.
We do need to take seriously a campus culture that has witnessed the extension of Mill’s harm principle into the subjective realm of offence taking. I think a good place to start is the well-known quote attributed to Voltaire; ‘I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Just add ‘on campus’ on the end and we’ve a workable principle around which to promote freedom of speech in our universities.