Where do you draw the line on freedom of speech?

If you didn’t watch them live, the transcripts from the first two sessions of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill committee’s meetings are up on Hansard.

They are unlikely to be used as case studies of effective scrutiny of potential legislation – unless someone is trying to demonstrate how useless the commons’ bills committees can be at this sort of thing.

In session one neither Kathleen Stock (witness) or Kevan Jones (Lab member) appeared to have noticed that the Bill covers discriminating between candidates for jobs on the basis of their opinions or beliefs.

Session two saw masks slip as a couple of the government’s witnesses advocated for a significant rolling back of the Equality Act 2010 – but at least heard some sense from sector legal expert Smita Jamdar, who pretty much managed to destroy the case for the Bill existing at all. Not that they’ll listen.

One of the things that the scrutiny has been missing so far is a proper look at some of the more important questions surrounding the Bill – one of which tends to be about the line between “conduct” and “free speech”.

Pretty much everyone agrees that there should be free speech on campus but all but ultra libertarians accept that there should be that there should be constraints on people’s behaviour and conduct.

It shouldn’t be a conduct issue to carefully espouse a controversial view – and it shouldn’t be a free speech issue if you’ve been screaming your “belief” in someone’s face, etc etc.

For example – this case involving the appointment of a university chaplain is interesting. David Palmer was nominated as the Catholic chaplain of the University of Nottingham by his bishop, but the university rejected him when posts about abortion and euthanasia were brought to their attention.

In one post he criticised US President Joe Biden’s position on abortion, accusing him of promoting the “slaughter of unborn babies”.

In another, commenting on proposed changes to assisted dying legislation, said then Health Secretary Matt Hancock was going to allow the NHS to “kill the vulnerable”.

Should someone who espouses views in that way hold a pastoral role in a UK university?

The university says:

A university should be a place for the robust exchange of views and debate over ideas, and we have no issue with the expression of faith in robust terms – indeed we would expect any chaplain to hold their faith as primary.

Our concern was not therefore in relation to Father David’s views themselves, or the tenets of the Catholic faith which we fully respect, but the manner in which these views have been expressed in the context of our diverse community of people of many faiths.”

One thing that’s unhelpful is that a lot of the “free speech” cases in the media are often said to be about beliefs but turn out to be about conduct. And once people know the full detail, most reasonable people can see how difficult this line may be to tread.

Interestingly in the Online Safety Bill, one bit says content may be harmful “due to the way in which it’s disseminated, even if the nature of the content is not itself harmful”, for example “repeatedly sending apparently innocuous content to a user could be bullying or intimidating

Naturally there’s no such subtlety in the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill, whose proponents give the distinct impression that under their proposals, Nottingham’s decision not to appoint Father David Palmer would be overturned by the appointee on the OfS board.

The other interesting aspect here is that if Nottingham had appointed, students could have complained all the way to the OIA, and Palmer could have complained all the way to the proposed free speech complaints scheme operated by the OfS. About the same case.

All we’ve heard from the government on that is that there would need to be proper liaison between OIA and OfS, but we do need proper thought on how ridiculous it would be for there to be two bodies in this space, particularly given most of the cases that are about “free speech” are about EDI from another perspective. Bafflingly, the OIA don’t even seem to have been called as a witness to the bill committee’s deliberations.

More generally, in some ways teasing out from the government whether Father David Palmer would be protected by the legislation is a more interesting area to explore than the extremes like David Irving – not least because he is, as they say, unrepentant.

See also – those pro-life student societies who pop up on campus from time to time with plastic foetuses at Freshers’ Fair or massive billboards banging on about abortion being murder. Conduct or free speech?

2 responses to “Where do you draw the line on freedom of speech?

  1. Re The university of Nottingham’s statement: ‘the manner in which these views have been expressed’ I don’t understand in relation to the Catholic priest. Is it the medium or the language that is the problem? Had he just stood up in a pulpit and said these things, would that have been ok?

  2. David Palmer was subsequently recognised as Chaplain by the University of Nottingham. Paul Greatix’s statement about the appointment indicates that this incident was about free speech, not conduct.

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