By Max Minkin
“Who could possibly oppose a bill designed to protect free speech at universities?” That is what I asked myself when the details of the Government’s so-called ‘Free Speech Bill’ were revealed. Of course, I had rather hoped that the answer would be no one, but I had never been more wrong.
The primary purpose of the Free Speech Bill is to a) ensure that neither the governing bodies, nor the student unions, of higher-education institutions are able to prevent student societies and their members from expressing views and inviting speakers, that said bodies and unions might find unpalatable and b) force universities to promote and protect free speech on campus.
This seems like a perfectly reasonable set of objectives, yet Labour politicians, left-learning commentators, and even our own Students’ Union have attacked the Government over the bill, describing it as completely unnecessary and shouting something about the culture wars. “There is no free-speech crisis in our universities,” they say, “there is no need for this bill”. To this, I respond quite simply: very well — if there is not a crisis now, it is still wise to have the law in place to ensure that such a crisis does not arise in the future.
The truth, however, is that while there might not be a “free-speech crisis” per se, major problems undeniably exist when it comes to freedom of speech at higher-education institutions in Britain. In recent years, we have seen speakers as moderate as Amber Rudd silenced and de-platformed at some of Britain’s best universities. We have watched student societies lose the ability to make their own decisions about external speakers. We have witnessed the emergence of a toxic, close-minded culture at many institutions. All of this is questionable morally and is also deeply damaging for our society — particularly as university is where young people are supposed to be exposed to a wide range of views, to challenge themselves, and to remain open to different ideas.
The Free Speech Bill can go a long way to solving this problem, by making it clear that university leaders need to promote and protect free speech and encourage their students to be respectful of other people’s right to express their views. However, the Bill’s value is not solely in the statement that it makes but also in some of the substantive measures that are proposed.
Crucially, student societies and their members will have the right to express their views and invite external speakers without the interference of their institution’s governing body or student union. This is a perfectly sensible and commendable policy. Firstly, we know that the majority of academics are left-leaning, and it would be unfair and unreasonable to allow them to dictate which speakers are too controversial and which views should be censored. However, even if we could trust academic leaders to be impartial, it is still not obvious to me why students should not be able to make these decisions for themselves.
When it comes to student unions, the case for the measures proposed by the government is even more compelling. Our own Students’ Union, despite having a rather obvious left-leaning political bent, has taken upon itself the extraordinary power to vet and reject all external speakers that student societies might want to invite. How could this possibly be fair, given that SU officials have clear political biases — and what, in any case, entitles or qualifies them to make decisions on our behalf? What business is it of the DSU which speakers I listen to in my student societies?
The argument, of course, is that the governing bodies and the unions need all these powers to protect us from all manner of nasty individuals — anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, flat-earthers, you name it. To me, this is a view which is patronising at best and insulting at worst; we are not children — most of us are thinking individuals perfectly capable of making decisions for ourselves without the need for the SU or the university leadership to “keep us safe”. If, for instance, a particular society is in the habit of inviting speakers whose views you find unpalatable and of no value, you are free not to attend its meetings — but I do not see what business it is of yours whether I can attend them.
All in all, it is clear to me that the Free Speech Bill is a perfectly sensible proposal that will ensure that students can express their views and listen to the views of others without the fear of retribution, promoting a culture of free speech and open discourse — something that we desperately need.
Image: Amana Moore