A “Free Speech Champion” at Universities is a Dangerous and Cynical Political Act

(Photo: The Guardian)

By Sam Shaw – Contributor

In February, the Department of Education announced new measures with the stated aim of protecting free speech. They stated that there will be stricter conditions on the protection of free speech in higher education. Institutions which fail to comply with free speech measures can expect financial sanctions by the regulatory Office for Students. A “Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion” will be appointed to investigate any breaches and recommend financial penalties. These conditions not only apply to higher education institutions, but also to Student Unions.

Why is there a sudden impetus to defend free speech in universities? The government wants to be perceived, much like their appointee, as a “Free Speech Champion”. Free speech has become a salient issue in British politics. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 52% of British adults believe it is under threat. The Johnson government is aiming to target the large voter constituency who oppose “woke” campaigns, such as “Rhodes Must Fall”, that they believe are harming their freedom of speech. The “Free Speech Champion” is little more than a scaremongering initiative by the government to provoke an ardent reaction from outside higher education. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a press release that he is “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”. This form of attack on “wokeness” finds fertile ground in the conservative media. The Telegraph celebrated the government’s attempt to “torpedo efforts at rewriting Britain’s history” and “cancel culture”. This was a hyperbolic klaxon to the anti-woke constituency. In 2018, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights found that “press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality”. Not only are the media’s reports of suppression greatly exaggerated, they are harmful to free speech themselves.

The Telegraph’s criticism of universities “rewriting Britain’s history” is untenable. The purpose of university is to provide a place of critical intellectual debate. This debate involves reinterpreting and presenting our past differently, often to make it more inclusive. Preventing the past from being rewritten, as the Telegraph proposes, would actually limit freedom of speech because it emphasises sticking rigidly to a single exclusive perspective of history.

Strict governmental control of free speech in universities poses a severe risk. The conservative think tank “Policy Exchange”, which formulated the new measures for protection of free speech, have suggested that academics should not “alter the curriculum” according to their political stance. Yet they have also proposed that their History Matters project should decide what changes are “politically motivated”. Therefore, they can decide what can and cannot be included in university courses according to their political agenda. Here conservative hypocrisy is clear; this is exactly what they accuse academics of doing. As Jonathan Portes pithily puts it: “it all sounds a bit McCarthyite”.

The Office for Students is actually delineating what forms of free speech are acceptable. Proper free speech would allow students to decide who they want to speak at their own events, yet the government is introducing punishment for doing so. Contrary to media portrayals, students actually do little to contradict free speech. One of the most popular media examples of the contravention of free speech is the student protest against Germaine Greer’s talk at the University of Cardiff in 2015. Yet in this case her freedom of speech was not violated as she was given a platform and gave her full talk. Despite media outrage, student protest at her talk is an apt example of free speech on campus because the protest allowed students to freely declare their dissenting opinions. The right to object and criticise is a fundamental component of free speech.

The cynical expropriation of free speech can be used to justify and cover up harmful and defunct hate speech. Priyamvada Gopal and Gavan Titley state that free speech can be “weaponised” by the government. The term “free speech” is used to give all ideas equal credence, including harmful and outdated ones, such as scientific racism. This allows these ideas to be re-legitimised in the public discourse. Therefore, their proponents can use free speech to draw attention to, and disseminate, prejudiced and hateful ideas which can inhibit the freedoms of those that are marginalised within our society.

The “Free Speech Champion” is thus little more than a dangerous and cynical political act. As Alison Scott-Baumann points out, the government itself does more to deter free debate on campus with bodies such as the Charity Commission and Prevent that interfere to stop controversial speakers attending Student Unions. (Scott-Baumann, 2021) The hypocrisy of government is self-evident. This exposes free speech as a limited and duplicitous buzzword used to stir up voters’ passions against the “woke” enemy. A government that has recently denied institutional racism in the Sewell report and clamped down on the right to protest cannot be expected to act as an objective guardian of free speech for all.

References

Department for Education. Landmark proposals to strengthen free speech at universities. [Online]. GOV.UK. Last updated: 16 February 2021. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/landmark-proposals-to-strengthen-free-speech-at-universities

Gopal, Priyamvada and Titley, Gavan. The free speech row at Cambridge will restrict, not expand, expression. [Online]. The Guardian. Last updated: 18 December 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/18/free-speech-row-cambridge-restrict-expression-minorities-freedom-thought

Hope, Christopher. Exclusive: Universities face fines as part of ‘twin assault’ on cancel culture. [Online]. The Telegraph. Last updated: 13 February 2021. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2021/02/13/exclusive-universities-face-fines-part-twin-assault-cancel-culture/

Joint Committee on Human Rights (2018). Freedom of Speech. Joint Committee on Human Rights. [Online]. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201719/jtselect/jtrights/589/58906.htm#_idTextAnchor019

Portes, Jonathan. The rightwing defence of ‘academic freedom’ masks a McCarthyite agenda. [Online]. The Guardian. Last updated: 4 August 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/04/rightwing-academic-freedom-policy-exchange-thinktank

Scott-Baumann, Alison. A new ‘free speech champion’ may end up doing the opposite [Online]. The Guardian. Last updated: 17 February 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/17/free-speech-champion-universities-campus

Smith, Evan. This is not the first government crack down on free speech in universities [Online]. Wonkhe. Last updated: 16 February 2021. Available at: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/this-is-not-the-first-government-crack-down-on-free-speech-in-universities/

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