Finally, some good news re free speech

Since he took to The Times paywall to self-announce his new job as England’s campus free speech tsar, Arif Ahmed has been subject to some criticism surrounding his position on the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

In that piece the following form of words was found to square the circle:

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition is an important tool for understanding how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century. Adopting it sends a strong signal to students and staff facing antisemitism. But it must not restrict legitimate political speech and protest.

Now presumably in response to the commentary, he’s now amended his own article – adding in this new form of words:

I have had concerns about this in the past. Since then, I have seen at Cambridge how in practice the working definition can accommodate robust support for free speech and academic freedom.

And his justification for the apparent damascene conversion? Evidence:

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.

This is excellent news. If Ahmed’s yardstick on other EDI initiatives, codes or definitions is whether university adopters report any actual practical restrictions on free speech, we can all calm down about the Race Equality Charter, training on microaggressions and Report+Support sites.

So when, during the passage of the bill, Ahmed said:

To give one example, my own university recently put forward a policy, which has now been withdrawn, on discrimination and harassment, which included a variety of things regarded as micro-aggressions. These are things we should avoid.

…presumably he’ll be up for changing his mind unless someone has some examples of that kind of policy actually restricting free speech? After all, the EHRC – where Ahmed is a commissioner – describes micro-aggressions as a type of harassment, and OfS is about to require universities to train students on it and prevent it.

In 2021, Ahmed said:

In 1988, the Local Government Act banned Local Education Authorities from using material that taught “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. And in 2019, police charged two famous drill rappers, Skengdo and AM, for playing their own music, because of its supposed connection to gang violence (they got two years suspended). One couldn’t really say the value of truth or knowledge outweighed whatever real or imaginary social harms the police, the anti-pornographers or Mrs Thatcher were trying to prevent.

Who knows if SU LGBT+ officers or SU venues banning Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” will be celebrated or cancelled under Ahmed’s guidelines. Not unless they chill actual debate, I suppose.

When it comes to Prevent, maybe a fresh form of words will be found there:

And yet all too often our universities — or rather the government, the regulator, the managerial class that runs them and even the students’ unions themselves —behave as though their purpose is (a) to address real (and also I fear to whinge incessantly about imaginary) social problems that are better addressed elsewhere, if at all; and (b) to connive in the ongoing moral panic over “extremist” speech to which the current “Prevent” duty gives such clumsy and heavy-handed expression.

And given his new enthusiasm for IHRA and in the absence of actual evidence of the Race Equality Charter restricting academic freedom, perhaps he’ll rebuke OfS CEO Susan Lapworth for putting people off it with comments like this:

​​I’d expect autonomous universities to be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sorts of schemes.

Whether conduct codes for staff or students are allowed on the basis that they don’t stop someone debating things, or aren’t allowed on the basis that they somehow do, has been a big head scratcher throughout. But maybe we shouldn’t have worried after all.

And even if you buy that some self-censor on campus, outside of a tiny handful of incidences I’ve never seen actual evidence that it’s those sorts of policies that are causing it. And evidence, it seems, is to be the new litmus test.

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