Free speech: under threat?

Amidst the many difficulties administrators face, none attracts more disagreement than free speech. But is it truly an endangered species in our universities? And can university leaders stop it going extinct? Alex Diggins reports

Conflict rages on campuses; a war over words. Its flames were first fanned in the US. In 2017, protests against the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing provocateur and Breitbart editor, at UC Berkeley spiralled out of control. Over 1,500 protesters gathered, and a small minority turned violent, smashing windows, throwing fireworks and hurling Molotov cocktails. Police ordered a lockdown of campus buildings, made arrests, and in total $100,000 of damage was done to University property.

Closer to home, in 2015, the feminist writer Germaine Greer, notable for her seminal work The Female Eunuch, faced a fierce campaign at Cardiff University to ‘no-platform’ her for blunt comments she had made about transgender people. In the end, the talk went ahead under heavy security and protests at the event were limited. Germaine, though, confessed the experience had left her shaken, saying that campaigners had tried to “frighten her off”. Most recently, earlier this year, protesters at Manchester University Students Union defaced a mural of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If that had been painted in the newly renovated union, replacing it with Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. The Executive Officers of the SU released a statement saying that: “Kipling’s work was not removed in an attempt to obliterate it from history,” but “we thought his work was not suitable for the walls of an organisation that is led by such a diverse group of students.” We contacted Manchester University, but they declined to comment. Students, it seems, are growing more vocal – and more intolerant – towards ideas and people with whom they disagree. University administrators also appear to be more cowed, and less likely to challenge the actions of protesters.

That at least is the conventional narrative. The one beloved by the media, especially its more centre-right incarnations. A growing tribalism afflicts our universities, so the story runs.

This tribalism is manifested in an atmosphere which smothers, rather than encourages, free thought and speech, and which is ruthless in shutting down ideas it dislikes. This ideology has its own congested and contested vocabulary; a language of ‘no-platforming’, ‘safe-spacing’ and ever-more finely grained nuances of gender pronoun and personal address. Its central tenet holds that speech is violence, and that it can be used as a tool for prejudice, oppression and the systematic expression of power.

How accurate, though, is this characterisation? Are universities becoming more intolerant, less intellectually curious spaces? And should occasional examples of free speech flare-ups be taken as representative of a wholesale movement? Or are they isolated incidents lumped together by a media all-too-eager to join the dots? In short: is free speech under threat in our universities?

Students have always been a fractious bunch and in comparison to previous protest movements – the 1968 Paris riots, say – today’s sporadic and (mostly) well-mannered outcries seem small fry.

Intolerance does not an argument make

Officially – at least in the UK – the answer is no. A report released by the Joint Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights in July 2018 concluded that: “We did not find the wholesale censorship of debate [at universities] which media coverage has suggested.” Nonetheless, it did warn that intolerant attitudes, often masquerading under the banner of ‘no-platforming’, did pose a threat to robust debate; as did regulatory confusion, and incidents of protesters using intimidatory behaviour to prevent free discourse. It recommended that universities should adopt a clear set of guidelines when dealing with incidents arising from the muzzling of free speech.

The report’s findings were broadly corroborated by a separate investigation by the Higher Education Policy Institute – a think-tank. The HEPI’s investigation found that whilst universities had been too slow to adapt their procedures – by, for instance, overlooking new types of meetings online and on social media – in general, free speech was cherished and protected. As its author, Dr Diana Beech, affirmed: “Codes of practice should always facilitate free speech, not frustrate it.” And as Peter Tatchell, a veteran LGBT rights campaigner, himself subject to a ‘no-platforming’ row in 2015, wrote in the Forward to the report: “Free speech is under attack by some students in some universities. But there is no general crisis of free speech, as is often alleged.” He also underlined the principles by which he believed the intellectually rumbustious atmosphere of universities should operate: “Bans do not make intolerance go away or dissuade its supporters. Strong counter-arguments backed with effective evidence and research are much more effective and reach a far wider audience.”

And your correspondent’s own experience as a Cardiff student at the time of the Greer row support these findings. The furore provided juicy fodder for discussion, but seemed peripheral and did not substantially impact our everyday lives and teaching. But my experience cannot be taken as representative; and the mere fact that both the Government and influential think-tanks like HEPI feel duty-bound to weigh into the free speech debate suggests that – despite their protestations – it worries institutions and is something to which they must respond.

As Sir Michael Barber, CEO of the Office for Students, argued on the publication of the HEPI report: “Education and scholarship are advanced through dialogue and debate. Universities are places where people can encounter challenging ideas.

This is something we should encourage, rather than seek to protect students from.” If it is the duty of universities is to provide a forum for “dialogue and debate”, an arena for the airing of “challenging ideas”, then censorship, no matter how well intentioned, hobbles scholarship and the advancement of knowledge. That said, universities have a duty of care. Some students are vulnerable and look to their institution to provide the shelter and safe space to develop which previous circumstances might have denied them. Universities must balance these polarised – and even contradictory – impulses as they attempt to navigate this brave new world. One way this might be achieved is to examine the history and origins of the free speech debate, and it is to them that we now turn.

Tussles over speech and truth have certainly never been fiercer.

Whose liberty, whose speech?

The argument over free speech has deep philosophical and historical roots. Amongst the most influential of its early contributors was the Oxford philosopher Isiah Berlin. In 1958 he argued that there were ‘two concepts of liberty’: positive and negative. ‘Negative liberty’ means that the state, and its institutions like universities, should play the bare minimum in ensuring peaceful society; no person shall seize his neighbour’s property by force and there should be no legal restrictions on speech. By contrast, advocates of ‘positive liberty’ argue that the state must play a role to ensure individuals lead fulfilling, independent lives – whether that means banning harmful products, like alcohol and drugs, or by prohibiting certain types of speech which cause offence and, by extension, do harm. Berlin, who had lived through the horrors of the Russian revolutions of 1917, saw great threat in the idea of ‘positive liberty’. If the government decides what’s best for its citizens, he thought, then that concentrates power in an unconscionable way and erodes individual choice. The power to shape people’s lives is thus handed to whichever ideology shouts the loudest. An assault on free speech was therefore an assault on individual liberty in his eyes.

The next major insight came from the American thinker John Rawls. In 1971 he published A Theory of Justice, which became a critical success and a popular bestseller. In it, he posited that the ideal society should be constructed from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. Behind this veil people do not know their race, gender, talents or even their historical circumstances; by conducting thought experiments about how to run society from behind this veil, Rawls argued, it would be possible to ascertain what is just. For Rawls, free speech was a sacrosanct idea as debate and discourse were essential for the construction of a truly just society. As a recent Economist feature on Rawls said: “[he] relied on the notion that humans have a shared, disinterested rationality, which is accessible by thinking about the veil of ignorance, and is strengthened by freedom of speech.” But the notion of a veil of ignorance is contested by many left-wing activists, who argue that contemporary society is a result of generations of institutional prejudice and imbalances of power. To discuss building an ideal society without acknowledging that legacy is absurd and insulting, they claim. The Economist again: “If arguments cannot be divorced from identity, and if speech is a battleground on which groups struggle for power, then the project [of building a just society] is doomed from the outset.”

This tribalism is manifested in an atmosphere which smothers, rather than encourages, free thought and speech, and which is ruthless in shutting down ideas it dislikes.

Learning from history, whilst repeating it

These disputes are not academic. In fact, they are the fuel which current conflicts over free speech burn. But what lessons can institutions draw from this history? The first is to realise that debates over free speech have a long legacy; they are not a contemporary invention of the ‘snowflake generation’, despite what the right-wing press might claim. Since the midpart of the 20th century, issues of speech – and whether or not it can carry violence or power – have swept through every humanities discipline, not just philosophy. They have even spawned whole disciplines like gender studies. It was probably inevitable then that this academic frenzy should spill into popular protest. Moreover, to flip the perspective on its head: surely it is an encouraging sign that these ideas have escaped the confines of stuffy academic tomes and onto campuses? At least it proves that students have been paying some sort of attention in lectures.

The second insight to draw is that academic ideologies, like fashions, come and go. One of the primary benefits of universities is that while their teaching and research may reflect their current staff, they are institutions with long memories and deep foundations. Students have always been a fractious bunch and in comparison to previous protest movements – the 1968 Paris riots, say – today’s sporadic and (mostly) well-mannered outcries seem small fry. Their impacts may be diffused and exaggerated by 24-hour news and social media, but from the expansive viewpoint afforded to universities as institutions, having to weather the occasional protest and media scrutiny does not seem too high a price to pay for the privileged position they hold in public life.

The third idea to be aware of is that universities – and the debates they host, spark and quash – are entangled with those of wider society. Just as John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice chimed with the counter culturalism of the 1970s, so are today’s free speech debates enmeshed in wider issues around equality, diversity and gender. The #MeToo movement and the furore over gender pay gaps, especially at major public employers like the BBC, can be seen as localised outcries of similar concerns. This does not mean campus free speech conflicts can be entirely elided into wider social movements; but Vice-Chancellors should never forget that their institutions, while working towards goals which may at times seem opaque to the general public, are nonetheless responsive to and influence society’s shifting currents.

That is why interventions like that of the forthright Universities Minister Sam Gymiah, who at a summit in May warned that an “overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules” was having a “chilling” effect on free speech in higher education, have proved controversial. Sam’s proposal that universities should adopt “one clear set of guidelines on free speech”, while being a laudable attempt to fix the confusion of regulations that the HEPI’s report identified as a problem, has struck some as hypocritical. “Student unions have the right to decide how debates will be staged on their campuses”, Andrew McRae, Professor of English Literature at Exeter University wrote on his Head of Department blog. “How about, just for once, setting aside the easy, damaging rhetoric and looking at the hard, complicated facts of speech on campus?”. The Conservative Government is itself guilty of ‘no-platforming’ and massaging the truth in the Brexit debate, Andrew contends. “Gyimah’s largely unfounded attacks on universities are working to deflect attention from far more serious problems at the heart of his own Government. He is at present complicit in a project to close down debate and suppress uncomfortable evidence.” Andrew concluded: “Universities are not the problem here.”

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

Tussles over speech and truth have certainly never been fiercer. Social media, ‘fake news’, and a growing distrust in conventional media outlets, point, if not to a crisis, then at least to a moment of transition in our public discourse. It is instructive to place the debates over free speech at universities in this context. Not to suppress their potential impacts or importance, but to recognise that they exist in a wider maelstrom; a teacup at the centre of a storm. And in decades to come when intelligent algorithms govern, knowing our intentions before we are even aware of them, maybe we will look back on this tumultuous era as a halcyon time. A period when speech still mattered, and the hidden intentions of the human heart remained unknown. As George Orwell noted: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four.”