Free speech on campus? Yes. A free ride? No

There should be full freedom of speech for ‘extremists’ in British universities – and also for those who want to slate or ridicule them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

In our era of dumbing down, where the academy risks turning from a hotbed of Platonic debate and Truth-seeking into a conveyor belt that churns out jobsworths, it isn’t often one can agree with the words uttered by a university provost. But yesterday Malcolm Grant of University College London (UCL) made a statement that spiked can get behind. In response to claims that the ‘Pants bomber’, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, was radicalised during his spell as a student at UCL, and therefore that ‘extremist speech’ on campus should be curtailed, Grant said it is not a university’s job to ‘police’ its students’ beliefs or speech.

‘We must continue to regard students as adults’, he said. ‘Campuses should be safe homes for controversy, argument and debate.’ Hear hear. In defending the free exchange of ideas on campus, Grant is taking a stand for rigour and honesty in university life against the anti-extremist camp that wants students to be protected from ideas judged to be too ‘toxic’. One of the academics concerned about extremism says that when universities ‘tolerate on their campuses organisations which seek to radicalise, they hammer another nail in the coffin of the idea of higher education’. In fact, banning organisations on the basis that their ideas are dangerous and that students are easily brainwashed would be the real funeral pyre of higher education, turning universities into thought-policing institutions and redefining students as overgrown children.

Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born rich boy who allegedly tried to blow up a jet flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underpants, studied at UCL from 2005 to 2008. He was president of UCL’s Islamic Society which often held meetings to discuss (and denounce) the ‘war on terror’. He helped to organise a ‘War on Terror Week’ which included debates such as ‘Jihad or Terrorism?’. Radical Islamist preachers and members of the controversial Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir spoke at UCL while Abdulmutallab was there, and this has led some to argue that UCL, by tolerating such discussions, was ‘complicit’ in the failed Christmas Day bombing and that there should now be tighter controls on who can speak in universities.

There are many problems with the demand to curtail so-called inflammatory speech. First, it transforms the university from a place where asking questions (yes, even off-the-wall questions) is positively encouraged, where students are provided with access to Knowledge and the space in which to interrogate and doubt such Knowledge, into a place where only certain, non-extreme, vetted ideas are allowed to leak on to campus and into students’ heads. And that can, and already has, led to the exclusion not only of Isalmist rants but also of other ideas considered dangerous these days: climate change ‘denial’, alternative views of history, lecturers who are too right-wing or too left-wing. Erecting an intellectual forcefield around universities changes the whole nature of university life, turning it into a place where students are provided with nuggets of wisdom, the correct ideas and thoughts, rather than a place that nurtures a way of thinking, independent thought, the sharing of Knowledge through expertise but also through debate and interaction.

Second, filtering out ‘extremism’ infantilises students. University is meant to be an arena where boys become men and girls become women, demonstrating an ability to think, work and act independently as well as with professors and other students. The academy is built on the idea not only that its students are thirsty for Knowledge but that they are also capable of weighing it up and understanding it; that is, their minds are healthy and robust. The expulsion of ‘extremism’, by contrast, sends the message that students are fragile creatures, with minds like sponges, who might be easily swayed by some loony cleric or Holocaust denier. One reporter said of Abdulmutallab’s ‘War on Terror Week’, ‘It was brainwashing’. This is a judgement not so much on the nonsense that Abdulmutallab’s speakers were no doubt spouting but more fundamentally on students’ own ability to decipher right from wrong, Knowledge from gibberish. The censorship of so-called extremism would denigrate the very idea of the student.

And third, trying to shut up hotheaded Islamists is an extraordinary displacement activity. It is true, as spiked has argued many times, that al-Qaeda-style terrorists are more likely to be radicalised in the West than in Kabul, Kandahar or Baghdad, where the disastrous ‘war on terror’ is still focused. The evidence shows that most wannabe Muslim martyrs are middle-class, well-educated and tend to be either from Western cities or to have lived and studied in them. Often they seem more influenced by the woe-is-me politics of victimhood and identity than by Taliban-style traditionalism. Yet chasing the preachers who might possibly exacerbate such feelings is about avoidance: instead of getting to grips with what is missing in, or wrong with, Western society, to the extent that some young people are drawn towards shallow anti-Westernism and reject the ‘evils of integration’, such censorship pins the blame for social problems on a handful of men in frocks. It discourages open, honest debate; it leaves burning political issues unresolved.

For these reasons, Malcolm Grant’s comments are welcome. However, while it is sweet relief to hear a provost defend freedom of thought and speech, it is also worth asking what lies behind the idea today that ‘Colleges must let extremists speak’, as the front page of the London Evening Standard declared yesterday, reporting Grant’s comments as if they were shocking and disturbing. Because often, I fear, the ‘let the extremists speak’ argument springs not from an unflinching commitment to freedom of speech but rather from a deep-seated crisis of authority in the modern academy. It seems to me that it is not so much universities’ love of openness and rigour that leads them sometimes to tolerate extremists but rather their doubt about what is True, what is Right, what is Good, so that they provide platforms to all-comers who might have something ‘valid’ to say. It is relativism that underpins the tolerance of ‘extremists’, rather than freedom. And we should insist that having free speech on campus does not mean giving everyone a free ride. In fact it means the opposite.

That relativism has been elevated over liberty can be seen in the fact that at the same time that more ‘extremists’ are allegedly running riot on campus, there are more and more codes of speech governing the extent to which other people can question, ridicule or mock these ‘extremists’, or even moderate religious and political speakers. At the end of last year I was invited to debate the head of the UK wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir at Queen Mary Westfield College in London. But under pressure from censorious student groups and the university’s administration, the debate was banned. It was moved to the University of Westminster a couple of weeks later, and there, both me and the representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir were informed about what we could and could not say. The university’s religious affairs liaison – a white convert to Islam – told us that before being allowed to speak we would have to read a document telling us not to insult or ridicule anyone else’s religious beliefs, political affiliations, sexual preferences and so on.

I read it, and ignored it, and later got booed for saying ‘Sharia law is inferior to Enlightenment-derived laws’. Yet this experience reveals much about the crisis of freedom in British universities. In one serious London university a debate is banned outright because the ‘extremist’ might corrupt the pathetic students, and in another serious London university the debate is allowed to go ahead but is severely governed by informal codes designed to preserve ‘respect for identities’. Such codes now exist on campuses across the UK. The extremist is allowed to speak, but no one is really allowed to say to him: ‘You’re talking bollocks, mate, and here’s why…’ Such informal rules protecting all belief systems and granting equal weight to all lifestyle choices really demonstrate what lies behind the ‘let the extremists speak’ argument: a relativistic climate in which universities doubt whether it is their job to assert Truth with a capital T over madder, weirder small-t ‘truths’, and where what looks like free speech is actually something very different.

If a student at a British university starts believing that some radical form of Islam is ‘the Truth’, it is most likely as a result of this intellectual cowardice rather than the strength of conviction of some visiting preacher. It is the climate of non-debate, of listening and nodding along to everyone, that can make things seem like the Truth by default. This creation of a relativistic mishmash of equally valid views sells students short as surely as does the outright censorship of ‘extremists’: it, too, creates a climate of conformism and question-avoidance, where the extremists are allowed to speak but only because ‘everyone must be heard and treated with respect’.

John Stuart Mill said the Truth can only be worked out through free and open debate, and ‘on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right’ (6). Absolutely. That remains the essence of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. But Mill didn’t mean creating an unsightly, unchallengeable public parade of ‘many truths’ showing us their wares – he meant a rigorous arena in which everything is sayable and in which some ideas will inevitably be defeated and sidelined by other, better ones. Just such an atmosphere should prevail in British universities, rather than the dire choice between outright censorship or a relativistic pseudo-free-for-all that they are faced with today.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Steve Bremner found a pick’n’mix attitude to free speech on campus. Dolan Cummings saw free speech as more than a slogan. Richard Reynolds asked fellow students just to say no to ‘No Platform’. Wendy Kaminer told Brendan O’Neill of how American students have become ‘Young Authoritarians’. Or read more at spiked issue Free Speech

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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