Freedom of speech for controversial speakers has caveats, public survey finds

The public disagrees with those who espouse racist rhetoric, Holocaust denial and jihadism being given platforms at universities

As the debate over freedom of expression in higher education intensified last week, with the announcement of a government bill designed to hold universities and students unions culpable for censorship on campus, a new survey suggests the majority of the public do not support unchecked free speech.

A public survey commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and the civic university charity UPP Foundation found that a majority think that people should be allowed to speak to students at university so long as their views are not illegal (55%). A quarter (24%) support a more libertarian perspective, where anybody can speak to students regardless of their opinions.

The poll of 2,000 adults is to be published soon – but the organisations behind it have brought forward the release of its key findings after a debate raged last week over the implications of the government’s Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill.

Last week, universities minister Michelle Donelan was caught in a media storm when she appeared to accept that Holocaust deniers may be able to bring action against a university or students union if denied a platform. A Downing Street spokesperson was quick to rebuff Donelan’s comments made during a BBC Radio 4 interview, saying the government would never accept antisemitism on campuses.

The survey found that people’s opinion on freedom of speech varied, with correlations between different age groups, social classes and political viewpoints.

The public broadly supports the rights of people to speak to students if they are supportive of the British Empire, believe in lower immigration to Britain, disagree with gay marriage and gender self-identification and support the Trump presidency. They also support communists and former violent criminals addressing university audiences.

The public broadly disagrees with those who espouse racist rhetoric, Holocaust denial and jihadism being given platforms at universities.

Although different groups differed in their levels of support or opposition in all 10 scenarios, no group held an opposing view to the majority.

On a range of different contentious issues, the public – including 18-24 year olds and across political boundaries – support allowing controversial speakers on campus, even if they don’t agree with their views
– Richard Brabner, UPP Foundation

Positions vary depending on people’s background and identity

Younger people are less supportive than older people of the rights of speakers who are supportive of the British Empire, believe in lower immigration to Britain, and disagree with gay marriage and gender self-identification. They are also more supportive of the rights of Trump supporters and communists. They are less opposed to restrictions on Holocaust deniers and jihadists. Despite these differences, they still side with the overall opinion of other age groups – just by less large majorities.

Men are much more pro-freedom of speech than women in all 10 hypothetical situations given to those surveyed.

The survey suggests a correlation between political opinions and the rights of controversial speakers. On average, those that intend to vote Conservative are more supportive of the rights of controversial speakers than Labour voters in seven of the 10 scenarios, backing those that support the British Empire, oppose gender self-recognition and want lower immigration. Labour voters, however, are more inclined than Conservative voters to think communists and former violent criminals should be permitted to speak on campuses.

Graduates are more pro-free speech than non-graduates in eight of 10 examples – but non-graduates are more inclined towards the rights of speakers defending the Empire and calling for restrictions on immigration. AB voters tend to hold more libertarian views on free speech than DE voters, but distinctions are marginal in almost all examples except concerning communists; AB voters are considerably more supportive of free speech for those speakers than those from lower socioeconomic groups.

The report warns those “who may think any controversial issue is problematic” that self-identified Labour voters, liberals, and young voters (aged 18 to 24) support controversial speakers’ right to speak on university campuses in most cases: they, much like older people and Conservatives, do not support racists, Holocaust deniers and jihadists having the right to speak on campuses.

The report warns the government: “Specific examples can quickly find their coalition of supporters… with Conservative voters in 2019, those on the Right, and older people, all liable to be less supportive of someone’s right to speak at university depending on the nature of their views expressed”.

Richard Brabner, the director of the UPP Foundation, said: “These results show there are lessons for all sides in this debate. Free speech is popular. On a range of different contentious issues, the public – including 18-24 year olds and across political boundaries – support allowing controversial speakers on campus, even if they don’t agree with their views.

“But equally, those pushing for a blanket protection for free speech should be under no illusion. The public does not approve of a libertarian free for all. When it comes to racist speakers and Holocaust deniers the public do not want them anywhere near our universities.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary last week criticised the government for proposing the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education). In a House of Commons debate that followed the Queen’s speech, Green told MPs that in supporting the bill, they were “handing over the power to determine whether free speech complaints on campus are justified to the Office for Students, a government regulator with an unqualified former Conservative MP appointed as its chair”.

The director of Hepi, Nick Hillman, last week alerted delegates at the Universities Human Resources (UHR) 2021 conference that the draft bill could limit their right to recruit only staff whose values align with their institutions. “You might have some really unpalatable people with values rather different to your institution’s values, applying for jobs,” told HR managers. “And if you turn them down, because their values are different to your values […] perhaps that will, in future, be against the law.”


Related news: Nick Hillman on free speech, trade-offs and policymakers

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