It was to host education minister Claire Coutinho orating on “Freedom of speech and the leaders of tomorrow”. Presumably we were supposed to subconsciously think that the minister who holds the free speech brief in the government is a potential leader of tomorrow.
My suggestion was that we have a go at publishing a drinking game to with it. It’s a good job we didn’t:
We now give thanks to the Galileos, the Darwins, the Keplers, the Newtons for pushing forward the frontiers of our knowledge, our understanding of astronomy, mathematics, natural history, all biology wouldn’t be the same if those visionaries did not believe in freedom of speech and the pursuit of truth.
To be fair, as well as the same collection of quotes, anecdotes, dodgy research and nostalgia for a lost past that has peppered every speech on this since a section of the Conservative party got taken over by Revolutionary Communist Party ideology from the 80s, we did get probably the most viscious version of “them and us” enemy within framing of the issues that I’ve heard in a long time:
Vigilance is needed, as there are those who seek to stifle debate in our universities, curious students are being deprived of attending events. visiting speakers are intimidated by aggressive protests. And in the worst cases, academics are losing their livelihoods and their reputations for the crime of expressing an opinion. All of this is being driven by a small group of activists who shout the loudest, activists who can fire off a lot of tweets and draft open letters not simply to express that opinion but to close down and avoid debate.
There were some new bits. Coutinho argued that the more we use social media, the more its algorithms will feed us what we like to hear from who we like to hear it from – framing university as some sort of escape from it:
We get hooked on that drip of dopamine hits from people who agree with us, and those who disagree with us become the enemy… Free speech at university is an antidote to the toxic effects of social media. By instilling the next generation with a new appreciation for freedom of speech, we can make sure this attitude doesn’t define our society in the years to come.
Ironically, for many students, it’s quite clear that social media offers an antidote to a toxic culture of free for all “debate” campus. We also got a new bit on “pure maths”:
I met with a group of mathematicians who were being pressured into decolonizing their curriculum by downplaying or magnifying the work of mathematicians depending on their race. They were deeply concerned when I spoke to them, but also fearful of speaking out because of the potential for a backlash that could put their jobs at risk.
At that meeting, I thought of the words of the 20th century mathematician David Hilbert, who said, mathematics knows no geographic boundaries – for mathematics the cultural world is one country, and yet some people see even this discipline, the purest of all sciences, one which has developed across borders for more than a millennium, as an outlet for their activism instead of being motivated by a love of their subject and the pursuit of truth.
This nonsense, you’ll recall, comes from a furore over the impossibly innocuous (and optional) QAA Subject Benchmark Statement which, I’d add in passing, is a compilation of views of expert academics.
Half of the culture wars row is one side complaining that these days, people run to authority over others’ views and behaviour instead of having a chat in the common room. There’s a way of reading the maths row that is “well if they can run to authority, now we can too”.
But look. I promised myself I wouldn’t write the same blog on the same speech again this evening that I seem to have written every few weeks for a few years now. It was the Q&A where things got interesting.
Those who’ve been following the saga will remember that on the day the free speech bill was introduced to Parliament, then higher education minister Michelle Donelan got into hot water when Radio 4 PM’s Evan Davies asked her about holocaust denier David Irving:
What this bill is designed to do is ensure that we protect and we promote free speech that is lawful so any free speech that is lawful… Obviously it would depend on exactly what they were saying, whether they were straying into racism, whether they were straying into hate crimes, but a lot of these things that we would be standing up for would be hugely offensive and would be hugely hurtful… There is a difference between condoning and supporting something, as opposed to standing up for free speech.
By lunchtime the following day, the PM’s spokesperson had clarified that holocaust denial would actually still be allowed to be banned – and ever since the government has clung to the qualifier in the legislation that universities and SUs must take “reasonably practicable steps” to secure free speech within the law – where that “reasonably practicable” line catches all other balancing duties like the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act.
What is fascinating is that when you listen as intently as I do, neither Donelan nor any other minister has ever said that a university can ban holocaust deniers per se. It’s the opinion that’s allowed to be beyond the pale – not the opiner.
That might work if DebSoc books a speaker to come and speak on the topic “Why Women must die”. But most of the grifters on the circuit would never advertise their speech as such (unless they wanted to bask in martyrdom), and others want to build followers who they can be more direct with in other settings.
That’s the puzzle that has faced hundreds of SU activities managers who’ve weighed up a risk assessment under the Prevent duty over the years. The speaker booking form never says “Why anti semitism is cool, actually”. But often the speaker has an antisemitic history and hinterland that suggests they may be using a campus appearance to gain credibility and a following. What do you do?
Opinions or hate?
So as I say, the Q&A at the Coutinho gig was fascinating. A rep from the Union of Jewish Students put a version of the Evan Davies question:
Will Holocaust deniers be able to use provisions of this bill to argue that they be allowed to speak on campus and to make a claim if no platformed on campus?
And Coutinho very carefully responded as follows:
I’ll be clear now that there is no place for holocaust denial on campus. What we’re trying to do, as I said before, is make sure that we’re protecting people’s ability to debate contested opinion, but not to spread hate. And that would absolutely count as spreading hate.
It wasn’t just over holocaust denial. “Jack from The Sun” noted that she’d made the point that while freedom of speech should be protected, maybe abusive viewpoints shouldn’t be tolerated. He asked:
Where do you draw the line at that? And would you be comfortable for someone like Andrew Tate to address a group of students?
And this time we got:
I don’t think there’s any place for people who are spreading hate on campus. So I wouldn’t like to see Andrew Tate speak on campus.
Wouldn’t like to see. Few of us would like to see him, Claire. But can we ban him? Or does your legislation require us to both have him and pay the security costs for him?
The problem is that if Tate decided to do a university speaker tour, he would be unlikely to fill in the form with “Why women are evil”. The now Act requires freedom of speech within the law.
If he’s coming ostensibly to speak on, say, pure maths, it’s very hard to see how anyone might refuse him – and hard to see how an SU might get away with “no platforming” in terms of a permanent ban.
Out of Stock
One questioner (I didn’t catch her name) asked a particularly pointed question:
Some would argue that someone like Kathleen Stock does spread hate in a way that should be unacceptable under the Equality Act. And I wonder if you would tell us how you determine the difference between hate and opinion, without resorting to opinions that you or Arif Ahmed find reasonable.
Coutinho’s shaky argument hardly addressed the point – mainly because she effectively framed some opinions as “hate” and others as “contested opinion” without actual reference to the law:
So I think the debate in the area of trans women, for example, which I think you’re talking about in terms of Kathleen Stock, is about where should rights exist, and how should that work in terms of rights balancing two groups together? That is that the matter that has, at the moment, a matter of opinion, which I think is right for society to be able to debate in whatever forum, I think if people were, you know, spreading hate and smearing a group of people, that’s a very different level of debate, and that’s where I think you can draw a line. It will be for universities to decide, I think they will be able to do that and make sure that they can balance both of those two duties.
Probably the most interesting question came in from someone who’d been to university forty years ago and who is back at university now:
If the young people are, for whatever reason… left biased, if you’re the minority which isn’t that, then peer group pressure and wanting to be liked and not stand out as a weird eccentric, it must be quite difficult for undergraduates today.
He’s right, of course – although he misses that when he was at Oxford four decades ago he was probably part of the confident majority, and almost certainly ignored or couldn’t see how hard it would be for the tiny number of working class or minority ethnic students to get their views heard. Coutinho’s answer hardly helped:
It’s more that they need to tell them that they should be able to critically think and make sure that they’re not sort of biassing their views, I think that’s the really important thing. And overall the best way that you can do that is by exposing people to different kinds of opinions and then let them make up their minds for themselves.
So we’re still here folks. When an SU officer phones me up and asks who or what they can restrict when their members call for it, I’m still none the wiser. My honest answer is often “you can ban the offensive opinions that the Telegraph’s readers have come to dislike, but not the ones that it still does like”. It’s a throwaway line, I know. But it increasingly appears to be absolutely true.