“You can’t say that!”: obstacles in free speech at universities

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Interplay between the Government and universities has always been precarious. Regarding free speech, however, views have never been more contentious. As new legislation is proposed by the Government, could this be the key to ‘protecting’ free speech, or might it simply be adding another superfluous layer of bureaucracy?

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is currently making its way through parliament. The act is intended to provide compensation to speakers, academics, and students if they are not provided free speech, breaking the university’s obligations. The higher education watchdog in England would have the ability to press fines on academic institutions for breaching the new guidelines. In addition, a “free speech champion” would be appointed to examine each university’s commitment to upholding these new regulations

Could this be the key to ‘protecting’ free speech or might it simply be adding another superfluous layer to bureaucracy?

While some feel hesitant to support such change, many are vaunting for it. Former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said it was essential “to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate”.

Current controversy at Sussex University has made this issue all the more prevalent. Having published work questioning the idea that gender identity is more “socially significant” than biological sex, a philosophy academic resigned following a wave of backlash from protestors. She then faced intense allegations of transphobia and bigotry which she fiercely denies, whilst receiving no support from the university.

Others feel that these new regulations will just burden the system. The National Union of Students, for example, reports “no evidence” of a freedom of speech crisis on university campuses while the Russell group of leading universities stress the importance of maintaining their “institutional autonomy”.

Many argue that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of consequences. Essentially, people should be able to face backlash for things they say if they aren’t acceptable. However, the action of de-platforming individuals is problematic, as it is difficult to define what constitutes a fair debate. The subject of Holocaust denial, for instance, was brought up when questioning the Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan. Holocaust denial is legal in the UK, but would this bill allow an extremist to claim compensation for not being given a platform to express these views? Donelan responded that there will be exemptions in what is considered “lawful free speech”, but many feel these ‘morally grey’ areas will be exploited and muddle an already complex situation.

At what point does one extinguish the flames of ferocity?

According to the head of the University and College Union, Jo Grady, the biggest threat to freedom of speech is not staff and students, but rather the Government and university managers themselves. She states the “widespread precarious employment” in universities prohibit the ability of academics to research and speak freely on different subjects and stunt career development. She suggests that the government needs to stop wasting time micromanaging campuses and should instead encourage university managers to retain staff on “secure, permanent contracts”.

Universities have always had to accommodate heated debates, but as political rhetoric grows stronger, at what point does one extinguish the flames of ferocity? If, as it seems for many, simply adding an intermediary “champion” would not help the situation, it would be counter-intuitive to have governmental bodies declare what is and isn’t “free”. Critics of this bill feel that a lot more nuance needs to be considered when tackling as important a topic as free speech. From redundant bureaucracy to enabling extremist views, the Government has a difficult balancing act ahead.

Image: Ken Breeman via Wikimedia Commons

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One thought on ““You can’t say that!”: obstacles in free speech at universities

  • Next time a speaker extolls memory of “The Holocaust,” I’m going to claim deplatforming unless I’m allowed to present rebuttals to their few factual claims.

    Reply

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