Books, Law, Rhetoric

Free speech is so last century


News from the campus barricades.

The results of the Free Speech University Rankings are in: 80% of British universities censor free speech. Using a traffic light grading system forty-seven universities were marked red* (including Oxford, Warwick and the LSE) forty-five were marked amber (including Cambridge and Imperial) and a mere twenty-five were marked green. What is going on? Here are some examples, alas there are many others.

  • Christ Church (Oxford) administrators cancelled a proposed debate on the subject of abortion. Brendon O’Neill was due to put the pro-choice argument and a student campaign complained that he should not be permitted to present this view because he was a man. One student boasted about her role in shutting down the event: ‘the idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups.’ (November 2014)
  • Cardiff University Student Union petitioned to prevent Germaine Greer speaking on the topic of women in the twentieth century because of her views on transgender issues (a subject she was not due to speak about). A protester said: “I really care about transgender people. Having Greer here reflects badly on the values of the University. There is no way she should be invited to give a distinguished lecture”. (November 2015)
  • The Cambridge Union has been criticised for inviting Julian Assange to speak (via video link from the Ecuadorian Embassy) about the role of Wikileaks. The university woman’s officer has resigned in protest on the grounds that he faces sexual allegations in Sweden. Another protesting student said she was concerned for “those who are emotionally and psychologically at risk from this invitation”. Another said that the mere fact of the invitation has caused a “visceral, physical toll” on some students. (November 2015)
  • Essex University authorities could not protect the safety of Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Alon Roth-Snir during a debate about the situation in the Middle East. The authorities ordered his evacuation from campus when a protest turned too disruptive. (February 2013)
  • Oxford University invited David Willetts MP to take part in a panel discussion entitled ‘Politics and Language’ as part of a wider series on rhetoric and public policy. Students called for the invitation to Willetts, who was in the cabinet at the time, to be withdrawn. One said: “Willetts’ presence as a speaker sends a signal of recognition and condolence for his position and policies.” (December 2012)
  • Goldsmiths, University of London cancelled comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s gig on the subject of freedom of speech because she held views on the criminalisation of those who have sex with sex workers (a subject she was not due to speak about). She was told that she was in breach of the university’s “safe-space policy”. (February 2015)
  • University College London Students Union banned the Nietzsche Club from holding meetings on campus on the grounds that its existence threatened ‘the safety of the UCL student body’. The university council minutes show that there was concern after a poster was stuck to a wall emblazoned with the quote “Equality is a false God”. (June 2014)

During the political battles of the post-war period, students were at the forefront of campaigns fighting in favour of freedom of expression. They pitted themselves, with others, against the bastions of conservatism: the Lord Chamberlain in the theatre, Mary Whitehouse on television and in the cinema, judges and conservative Home Secretaries in courts and Parliament etc. The barricades are still erected on campus, it is just that today’s left wing students have walked around to occupy the ramparts on the contrary side. What has occurred to make them so ban-happy? Is this the first generation to be more censorious than its parents?

Freedom of speech has a special role in universities and is protected as a matter of law. The Education (No. 2) Act 1986 imposes a legal obligation on universities to promote and protect free speech, and in particular it states that the only constraints on the duty to secure freedom of speech are those imposed by the law. Section 43 of the Act provides re universities that:

persons concerned in the government of any establishment… shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.”

This is a positive and proactive legal duty. The obligation is not merely to refrain from limiting or infringing freedom of speech, but rather to do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that it is secured. The duty is directed at free speech for all participants in university life – members of staff, students, and visiting speakers.

What therefore is the justification used now by campaigning university students for the banning of visiting speakers? I have been seeking the arguments deployed by them (in their blogs, newspaper articles and other sources) to seek to understand it all. The arguments fall into three categories:

  1. This is not closing down free speech but the operation of a ‘no-platform’ policy,
  2. Student unions are not bound in law by section 43 of the 1986 Act, and
  3. We have a duty to keep students safe and their rights to feel safe outweigh the rights of controversial speakers to speak.

Let me consider each in turn.

The ‘No platform’ argument runs like this: this whole matter is not really about freedom of speech at all but about not giving a person a platform to spout harmful and poisonous views. Any speaker who is ‘no platformed’ remains free to express herself in print or on television or by standing on a box in Hyde Park or via the internet. Simply denying a platform at a university does not silence a person at all. But this ‘No Platform’ policy (introduced by the NUS in 1974 and re-affirmed at subsequent conferences) is very limited in its scope. The stated aim of the policy (which can be read on the NUS website) is to deny fascists an opportunity to act like normal political parties. The list of organisations that any student union is permitted to ‘No Platform’ is currently listed as: members of the BNP, the English Defence League, Hizb ut-tahrir, Al-Muhajiroun and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. It is a policy therefore limited to only the people who are members of these five organisations. None of the people in my examples above are on the list

The second argument is: section 43 does not apply to student unions and their affiliated societies. The governance, structure and functions of a student union are sufficiently different from a ‘university’ that members of a students union can act outside the scope of section 43 with impunity. This, perhaps surprising, argument has not been tested in the courts as far as I know. The NUS (on their website) indicate that they have obtained advice from a barrister on this issue that affirms the point in their favour. Clearly the NUS has a concern that their blanket ban of the five organisations in the ‘no platform’ policy is susceptible to a legal challenge under section 43. It is by this legal nicety that the NUS assert that they do not have to uphold the duty the law imposes to protect and enhance freedom of expression on campus. It does not follow that this nice finesse is in the public interest.


The third argument is this: student unions need to ensure that students can regard their universities as ‘safe spaces’. Here is the current deputy president of the NUS Richard Brooks, who said last week: “Students’ unions are often the only place where students can be themselves, a place where they can think about things and challenge ideas and thoughts in a safe environment. Sometimes the only way you can ensure those safe spaces remain safe is through no platform policies…the NUS has a duty to protect the rights of students rather than those of guest speakers…to make sure student unions remain a safe space.” I take this to mean that allowing speakers to express controversial opinions could trigger harmful reactions in a student listener, especially if that student is from a group that society has marginalised. Richard Brooks again: “I don’t think Jewish students need to hear antisemitic comments to be more aware of anti-Semitism and I don’t think women need to have a greater exposure to misogynistic and sexist abuse to know that sexism exists.” This argument falls woefully short of being sufficient to prevent the speakers in my examples above from speaking. They were intending to talk on matters other than those that they are condemned for. Nobody’s safety was in jeopardy. Greer was due to speak on women and equal pay (not transgender issues); Assange on Wikileaks (not his case in Sweden); Willetts on rhetoric (not student fees); Smurthwaite on freedom of speech (not sex workers). Whilst it does not follow that any student would have been harmed had any of these four spoken on the identified controversial matter, it is idiotic to suggest that any student would have been harmed had the speech been on the invited topic. The argument about ‘safe spaces’ is being used disingenuously as a cover for banning people who have been deemed morally or politically unsuitable.

Let us assume (for the sake of argument) that students unions are entitled to prevent members of organisations on their ‘no platform’ list from speaking, Let us also assume (for the sake of argument) that this policy does not fall foul of section 43. It follows that a small number of people can be banned; everyone else should be free to speak, if invited, at any university in the UK.

The ‘safe space’ argument is particularly specious and is being used as a mask for authoritarianism. Universities should be the last bastion of reason in a muddled world. A critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that occurs in a university. Critical thinking is reflective and independent thought, a positive act of intellectual engagement. Universities should be centres of critique and its students should be treated as confident adults not kept in a cocoon of safety, in coddled vulnerability, in a culture of trepidation. Diverse and controversial voices and arguments should be heard, deployed, examined, rejected, enhanced, evaluated. They should not be suppressed. To strive to keep students ‘safe’ from ideas is a corruption of the principles of the academy. If universities pander to this therapeutic ethos, who is to fearlessly do societies critical thinking? Freedom of expression can hurt other people’s feelings, but that fear of hurt is not a sufficient reason for abandoning the principle. Today’s students are tomorrow’s civil society; tomorrow’s journalists, lawyers, politicians, artists, academics, writers, librarians, judges, teachers, charity workers. We need them to be, we demand they should be, proficient at independent critical thought.

This country has a tradition of commitment to freedom of expression since at least the Bill of Rights of 1689. Key texts have been written on freedom of expression by English writers: John Milton, Tom Paine, William Goodwin and, of course, John Stuart Mill. As a first year student at university I took a course in political philosophy and we read Mill’s On Liberty. We all agreed, in our tutorial group, with Mill that freedom of expression was paramount in a free society. A fellow student felt so strongly that freedom of expression was paramount, she said that anyone who denied it must be prevented from saying so. I pointed out that this was a self-defeating argument. She persisted. I appealed to the tutor, Glen Newey, but he left us to it and I failed to convince her of the error. She was later elected in 1997 to Parliament as a Labour MP and in 2003 voted with the Right Honourable Tony Blair MP to invade Iraq. She still holds a prominent position in Parliament. Glen, Glen where did it all go wrong?

Here is Mill from On Liberty (1859):

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation – those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.’

To suppress opinion is to assume infallibility. Who is able to honestly claim superior unassailable wisdom? This arrogance is not good for anyone (even those not in error, to use Mill’s term). Opinion regarded as infallible is also known as: dogma. Religious fundamentalists assert that their opinions are infallible and seek to suppress alternative views. Who can make a claim to such perfection? In Mill’s view without the collision of opinions truth degenerates into dead dogma. It becomes received opinion, and received opinion is synonymous with obedience and conformity, decorum and monotony. In the name of diversity blandness is ushered in. To remain lively and clear, truth needs to pitted against error on a regular basis. Opinions are improved when vigorously and earnestly contested. If a scientific paper deliberately avoided peer review and the author sought to suppress contrary theories, we would not think much of it. Even the Catholic Church (no stranger to dogma) employs a devil’s advocate when considering candidates for sainthood (at Mother Teresa’s hearing in the Vatican Christopher Hitches was invited by the Pontiff to assert the contrary case). In this sense error itself is capable of contributing to truth. False opinion is the (small) price we have to pay for the promotion of good. Are today’s university students so sure of their perfection that they can suppress the opinion of others? From where do they claim their purity?

In the spirit of fallibility I concede that I may be wrong. All opinions, however caustic, contrary to my own will be gratefully received. But they will not be suppressed.

Free speech is not the cause of our troubles, but one of the solutions. We need to improve dialogue between people who disagree with one another not shut it down. Instead of closing off the root to knowledge and understanding we need to expose ourselves to ideas with which we do not approve. Rather than inserting a finger in each ear and yelling, we must open ourselves humbly to other people’s arguments and meet them if necessary with arguments of our own. In this world with all its divisions it is now that discussion is most needed.


*Red = hostile to free speech. Amber = chills free speech. Green = no restrictions on free speech.
Health warning: the methodology is eccentric; to be used as a guide to trends only.


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