The year is still young, but already headlines point to the ongoing crisis of free speech and free expression within universities.
To revisit just a few of the recent cases: the University of East Anglia (UEA) effectively “no platformed” Kathleen Stock, Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University and a feminist critic of the controversial Gender Recognition Act. At Oxford, threats to another “gender critical” feminist, Professor Selina Todd, have resulted in security guards being stationed in her lectures while Merton College has been criticised over its plans to make students sign a code of conduct in advance of accessing a debate on “trans identities”.
Meanwhile, the University of York instructed its lecturers to mind their language after issuing an apology to “distressed” undergraduates who encountered the use of the word “negro” in a lecture on civil rights. Students, too, must mind their Ps and Qs. Sheffield is paying 20 students to be Race Equality Champions, charged with spotting and contesting “micro-aggressions” and “offensive comments” within their student cohort.
Into the fray has stepped (at time of writing) Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. No doubt mindful of the recent Conservative Party manifesto commitment to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”, Williamson wrote in thelast week to declare that “if universities can’t defend free speech, then the government will”.
Many have welcomed this move, and certainly support for free speech is to be cheered. But will this administration be any more successful in resuscitating a spirit freedom than its predecessors? After all, it’s been a year since government-backed guidance from The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) outlined that “everyone has the right to express views and opinions, including those that offend, shock or disturb others.” The then Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, was quick on the uptake, stressing that the guidance symbolised commitment across the sector to protect freedom of speech.
So, a year on, why does it seem as if the message hasn’t cut through?
Getting behind the recent headlines offers some useful insights into the problems. Take the UEA decision to cancel Kathleen Stock. According to UEA the decision reflected a need to respect “the views of members of the transgender community” and if the talk had gone ahead then it would have “raised issues of academic freedom”.
Of course, justifying a decision to “no platform” a speaker on the grounds of protecting academic freedom appears to make little sense. But this is to reckon without the recent shift away from promoting the cause of freedom of speech – ensuring that ideas can be heard – and instead creating freedom from speech – that is, reflecting the new orthodoxy that ideas can be toxic and discomforting and that words are potentially damaging or harmful in some way.
It’s this new ethos of protecting students from speech that led University of York to assure undergraduates distressed by use of “negro” that in future they would be shielded from such stressful encounters with difficult words. Indeed, where old-fashioned censorship sought to curtail those advancing radical or blasphemous ideas, the new speech codes, safe spaces and trigger warnings reflect a very different type of attack on freedom. They reflect a desire to shelter and protect students from emotionally difficult and intellectually challenging experiences, whether these are challenging moral questions tackled in live debates or depictions of sexual violence that might be encountered within course textbooks.
As some have pointed out on social media, in his commentary Williamson highlighted students expelled for expressing religious beliefs and abuse targeted at Jewish students. However, he failed to mention that many of the current curbs on free expression are rooted in fashionable identity politics. The controversy at Merton College, for example, arose when they requested anyone wanting to attend their Equality Conference to sign a code of conduct that would ensure the attendees exclude the use of language “”.
The Merton incident is one of many where sensitivities around identity have trumped free expression. Indeed, from “cancel culture” to “academic mobbing”, the rise and institutionalisation of identity politics has proven particularly devastating for open debate and free speech. Today, identities are less likely to reflect commitment to broad political causes such as socialism or liberalism and instead are often more personalised and derived from assumed values of an ethnic or gender group.
As a result, challenges to our beliefs are often perceived as personal attacks on our self-worth generating a sense that constant vigilance is required to safeguard emotional well-being. Consequently, it’s not just public lectures or events that are now under officialdom’s watchful eye. As shown by University of Sheffield’s recruitment of students to look for signs of unconscious bias and to spot microaggressions, informal interactions between friends are increasingly policed.
When trust diminishes to such an extent that everything students say, read or think becomes fair game for policing, how will young people ever develop a sense of independent thinking?
Recentsweeping UK campuses suggest that the ascendency of the values of safety and protection within universities has a disabling effect, depriving a new generation of a space to take risks and engage autonomously and critically with ideas and intellectual life. In the process, it undermines their ability to work out for themselves what they think and how they want to live.
In this context, Williamson’s belief that universities should be “generators of ideas and challengers of conventional wisdom” is welcome. The problem is that achieving this runs up against many government-endorsed policies. Instead of trusting students to be autonomous subjects capable of freely engage with ideas, many initiatives, from tackling online harms to mental health schemes, eradicating hate speech to consent classes, have the effect of cultivating a sense of vulnerability and a demand for watchful guardians.
Elsewhere, the EHRC guidance helps maintain the censorious impact of identity politics rather than challenging it. The barrister Jon Holbrook, the legal duty to “encourage good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and people who do not” is regularly invoked to silence those who question moral and political views associated with the politics of identity.
The ongoing free speech controversies raise serious questions about the government’s ability to boost academic freedom. It is also worrying that Williamson appears to see official intervention to impose academic freedom as a solution. Asserting that universities should deploy tactics of “zero-tolerance”, strong sanctions and securing prosecutions will further erode an atmosphere of freedom within the academy. Does anyone really want to see the security guards now protecting Professor Todd at Oxford deployed more widely?
More broadly, not only would this lead to decisions about academic life becoming further bureaucratised, it also sends a signal that freedom within universities can be imposed rather than built by students and academics who recognise the value of open enquiry, free thinking and unfettered speech.
Ultimately freedom cannot be imposed – it needs nourished. It is with this in mind, that Battle of Ideas (boi), the educational charity that I work for, set up the annual residential school Living Freedom. Open to all 18 to 25 year-olds interested in freedom, and aiming to attract the intellectually curious who are passionate about ideas and value open debate, Living Freedom experiments with how to nourish freedom in the 21st century. If that appeals, then we’ll see you there!
Living Freedom 2020 takes place 2-4 April in central London. For details of the programme and how to apply see
Alastair Donald is associate director of the Academy of Ideas and acting co-convenor for the Battle of Ideas Festival. He is also secretary of the boi charity and convenor of Living Freedom, its annual residential school for young people.