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Why fears of censorious campus culture are more than ‘free speech hysteria’

Writer, academic, and union rep, Jim Butcher, says there IS a problem with free speech on campus.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jim Butcher is a Reader in in the School of Human and Life Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University.

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.

An example

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.

Culture change

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.

11 responses to “Why fears of censorious campus culture are more than ‘free speech hysteria’

  1. I’ve met a few academics who don’t think the antics of some students is a big problem. But I’ve also met others who admit that they do not feel able to speak freely in departmental meetings, and have to think very carefully before opening their mouths. In some ways I think this wider, more nebulous climate of self-censoring – or worry about causing offence – is where the more significant threat to freedom of thought lies.

  2. As with all these sorts of articles, the case that Jim’s making is little more than lazy question-begging. Not only is he blithely conflating ‘no-platforming’ with all challenges to potential speakers’ sense of entitlement to a platform (indeed wilfully conflating, given how well the distinction has been made in articles he references) – he also seems to be under the impression that critical approaches to speech and platform in universities is a blow against freedom of speech or platform in general.

    In what meaningful sense has Heather Brunskell-Evans ideas been ‘censored’ when, as this piece points out, they were literally afforded airtime by the national broadcaster? Likewise for Greer, Tatchell, and the slew of UKIP MPs who, apparently not content with having easy access to national media, require speaking rights in universities and student unions for their ideas to be ‘fairly considered’. The truth is that all students of every university can listen to Blurred Lines and buy The Sun and read or hear from whomever they like, because students are not walled into a closed university garden. That universities and SUs choose not to privilege some people or ideas with the dignity and prestige afforded by the platforms they curate is no different to course coordinators picking and choosing which theories are taught as part of a degree programme’s core content: we should trust (and certainly can) that students are capable of seeking out other perspectives, even those deemed not worth platforming.

    And especially, we should note (as other articles have very well) that when SUs are involved with curating platforms it is students themselves who are doing so. This is not ‘censorship’ being imposed on them – it is a community of students choosing, through democratic means, how they want to distribute the authority they lend those who’re granted a platform. This debate – and every debate SUs engage in about who or what to platform – is the very best example of students thinking and acting critically towards the ideas which Jim claims have been ‘censored’.

    For arguments like Jim’s to be coherent we have to pretend that universities are both spectacularly different from every other sort of community or institution (such that they constitute a space where the entitlement to be ‘challenging’ or ‘controversial’ for its own sake has protected status) and that they are representative of wider society’s attitudes towards speech and ‘freedom’ in general – while simultaneously walled gardens within which students and academics access only locally-approved ideas, having no notion of their context in the wider world or what is being spoken from non-university platforms. It is painfully obvious that none of these things are true, leaving Jim’s cries of “but censorship!” ringing a little hollow.

  3. Hey Jim, did you have to submit your artical to the editors at Wonkhe before they published it on their platform?
    So you were happy to have your speech vetted?
    Funny that

  4. Scarily relatable…

    Our SU operates within this censorious culture without a doubt. An example is recently banning The Sun (though tactically branded as ‘we no longer stock this paper’) as well as hostile reactions to suggesting that we, as students, should focus on improving the educational climate through debate. This is evident in the current ‘elections’ taking place in my SU, as amongst the manifestos are ‘Safe spaces’, ‘Banning exams’ and a ‘Petting zoo’. The candidates haven’t included any tangible or realistic aims to genuinely improve the University. An example, none of these students have even addressed The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) which was released about a week ago now rating our university as amber.

    The nature of university is fundamentally lost in translation as being unable to debate, or even listen, to opposing points of views is prevalent within my own experience. Certain topics are avoided or given trigger warnings, and this represents this ‘loco parentis’ responsibility adopted by many institutions. Unfortunately, this is encouraged by services such as wellbeing, which reduces students as being vulnerable, and unable to challenge or listen to arguments without sufficient forewarning. This entails into curbing speakers and platforming policies championed by the SU.
    I do not think the solution is government intervention, but to challenge the driving forces behind suppressing freedom of speech. Academic freedom and freedom of speech must be absolute – no ifs and no buts.

  5. Jim, I quote, “While the case is striking, it is not an outlier”

    I don’t think you know what that sentence means.

    As far as I am aware “it is not an outlier” is supposed to mean “it IS a common occurrence”. This is odd though, because you only present five other specific cases. Moreover, one case was only ‘initially’ no platformed, and instead “had to deal with disruption throughout” (is disruption also not free speech?) and the other was not actually no platformed (?!).

    That’s the sum of your empirical examples for “it is not an outlier”?

    In other words, you agree with the first three reports you link to, that all this is hysteria?

  6. James, if you are not going to name your institution, your reply is hearsay. Also, I noticed “The candidates haven’t included any tangible or realistic aims to genuinely improve the University.” Can I assume this is the first SU election you have witnessed? 😉

    “An example, none of these students have even addressed The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) which was released about a week ago now rating our university as amber.” Can I also assume you don’t teach methods in your degree programme? Because if you did, you should be embarrassed for thinking FSUR has any sort of empirical value. Straw men are still blown away by gentle breeze.

    Finally, could one of you or Jim Butcher please solve this problem I am having. Could you explain to me what is the difference between the freedom to say what you want, and the freedom to organise to protest against what you *argue* is ethically damaging arguments? Put another way, I’d be intrigued by what correlative duties you think are inherent in the right to free speech. Is it only one, the right to be protected to say *anything*? If so, fantastic! All these debates over all those years, and it was *so* simple, all along…

  7. Some contributors on this thread are being extremely complacent with the principle of free speech, especially on University campuses. The most organised and vocal student groups at Universities, often at the most elite institutions, are demanding discussions are closed down and speakers banned. Discussions that were routine are now deemed out of place at Universities and students are considered too fragile to handle certain ideas. A vocal minority of students are demanding that they are protected from views they disagree with and present their peers as unable to handle the cut and thrust of debate.

    This has a twofold impact. Firstly, speakers are banned and debates closed down; secondly, that people self-censor and limit the types of discussions held on Campuses. If anything the latter is now more pervasive and damaging to the principle of open debate.

    History consistently demonstrates that free speech is the most important ally of oppressed minority groups. The right for groups to organise and publish what they want, when they want is crucial for advocates of social change.

  8. Would be nice if the commentators above who keep writing ‘demanding discussions are closed down and speakers banned’, ‘Certain topics are avoided’ actually give some EVIDENCE

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