The UK government, spearheaded by minister for universities and science, Jo Johnson, has announced plans to urge universities to commit themselves to freedom of speech. By encouraging universities to sign up to new governance documents and codes of practice protecting free speech, Johnson and others hope to halt the censorious culture sweeping the British academy. It sounds good, but those of us who believe in free speech on campus shouldn’t hold our breath.
There is unquestionably a crisis of free speech on campus, and it needs to be challenged. As the No Platforming of controversial speakers, Safe Space policies and bans on tabloid newspapers increasingly become the norm, Johnson is right to be concerned about the kicking free speech is getting at universities – the supposed centres of intellectual freedom. But the idea that government intervention and codes of practice will shake off this censorious culture is fanciful.
That students and universities would even need codes to prop up and endorse freedom of thought and speech shows how big the problem is. People in the academy should want to defend these freedoms, staunchly and passionately, in the name of allowing intellectual experimentation and debate to flourish. If we require bureaucratic codes to tell us these freedoms are important, then the freedoms themselves cannot exist in any meaningful sense. Johnson says his aim is to remind students and university officials that freedom of speech ‘should be at the heart of a higher-education community’ – but shouldn’t we know this, and shouldn’t we be demanding such freedom rather than waiting for the government to codify it for us?
Many universities already have codes of practice ‘ensuring’ freedom of speech, and they are most often used to inhibit speech rather than let it flow. These policies often have a very illiberal impact. Consider University College London, which has a code stating its commitment to freedom of speech. UCL has a ‘long tradition of seeking to safeguard freedom of speech’, it says. Except when people use ‘offensive’ or ‘provocative’ language, that is. Such speech should be avoided, the code says. Safeguarding freedom of speech clearly means safeguarding the right kind of speech, as decreed by UCL management.