Campus censorship: a tyranny of the minority

Most students are weary of the excesses of the social-justice movement.

Andrew Doyle

Andrew Doyle


A new study by the Policy Exchange think-tank has revealed that fewer than half of university students in the UK consistently support freedom of speech. According to the findings, 41 per cent agreed with Cambridge University’s decision to rescind Jordan Peterson’s fellowship, as opposed to 31 per cent who disagreed. A similar result emerged when they were asked whether Cardiff University was right to overrule the activists who sought to have Germaine Greer disinvited for her supposedly transphobic views. Forty-four per cent opposed the university’s intervention whereas 35 per cent supported it. The study is being taken as evidence that intolerance of diverse opinions is a growing concern in our higher-education institutions.

The study also focuses on the political discrimination faced by those with unfashionable opinions. Students who support Brexit, the study finds, are unlikely to express their views openly. Both students and academics seem to be prone to what the economist Timur Kuran has called ‘preference falsification’, whereby one’s true opinion is withheld in favour of a more socially acceptable declaration. This is why the authors of the Policy Exchange report emphasise the dangers of a ‘culture of conformity’.

Although this would seem to corroborate the general perception that free speech is under threat on university campuses, the authors emphasise that there remains ‘a noteworthy constituency of students who support free speech’. This has certainly been my own experience of speaking on campuses. Recently, a student-run politics society invited me to give a talk on the relationship between contemporary politics and satire and, in the subsequent Q&A, the issue of No Platforming was raised. Some had reservations about the idea of unfettered free speech, and one or two argued that there was a sound case for this kind of censorship. But on the whole I found the students to be open-minded and eager for debate.

The same cannot be said for the academic staff of the politics department, not one of whom turned up. I later discovered that they had refused even to publicise the event on the grounds that a talk which was likely to be ‘antagonistic to woke culture’ would be a violation of their ‘departmental ethos of promoting diversity’. Quite how a discussion about satire would in any way represent a threat to diversity is difficult to fathom. But it was clear enough that they were unwilling to have their ideological worldview challenged.

My experiences have persuaded me that in order to combat the culture of conformity in universities, we need to take a top-down approach. With faculty members so blind to the need for alternative voices, is it any wonder that some students are beginning to follow suit? Free speech is increasingly perceived as the domain of the right, so it is hardly surprising that academics are failing to defend what should be a non-partisan principle. A recent study by the Adam Smith Institute found that fewer than 12 per cent of UK academics consider themselves to be conservative. This lack of diversity should trouble all of us, irrespective of our political leanings.

As for the students, it is now undeniable that on most campuses there exists a small body of activists – most notably those who seek positions in students’ unions – who are hostile to alternative ways of thinking and who like to conflate speech with violence. However, there is every reason to believe that most young people are weary of the excesses of the social-justice movement. And as I have argued previously, it is unwise to dismiss an entire generation as ‘snowflakes’ on the basis of the illiberal antics of the minority.

The problem lies with the rise of a new kind of identity politics, one in which one’s sense of self-worth is inextricably bound up with a particular worldview. In such circumstances, a political disagreement can represent an acute threat to one’s emotional wellbeing. To be disabused of a long-held conviction can prompt what is known as an ‘identity quake’, by which one’s core beliefs are suddenly destabilised. Some students, in other words, perceive the very process of education as carrying with it the possibility of a traumatic disruption of the certainties that are key to their identity. This explains the hysterical response of one Yale undergraduate who berated her professor in a now famous viral video. ‘It is not about creating an intellectual space!’, she is heard to scream. ‘It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.’

It should go without saying that the university experience is not about reinforcing existing beliefs, but subjecting them to scrutiny. In spite of the more alarmist headlines that this recent Policy Exchange report has generated, most students are still keen to be challenged. At the same time, they are living through a time in which they are repeatedly assured that their emotional needs must take precedence over all other considerations. It is important that faculty and students alike feel able to discuss unpopular ideas and to question the status quo. In order to achieve this we need to break down this culture of conformity and initiate practical policies to defend academic freedom, and that means reaffirming the purpose of higher education itself.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. His book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath) is available on Amazon.

Picture by: Getty.

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


Mike Oliver

12th November 2019 at 7:18 pm

I don’t trust these surveys. I suspect that most students are actually in favour of free speech, but are aware of the consequences of not following the orthodoxy and so are careful when asked.
If they were polled anonymously, as per Brexit or Trump’s election win the result would contradict the polls.

antoni orgill

12th November 2019 at 6:55 pm

Jordan Peterson refused to comply with a supposedly progressive, anti-intolerance law which demanded the use of a gender-neutral pronoun in reference to transgender humans. The devilish detail we have been left to speculate about ..? Is ‘it’ the politically correct form of reference when speaking of transgender people?

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Skeptic 1972

12th November 2019 at 5:14 pm

Has anybody tried something nobody seems to try against these would-be bullies? Not to fight them, or to apologize to them, or to debate them… but to simply ignore them, or laugh at them?


12th November 2019 at 4:55 pm

Remembering back to my time at university (the mid 1970s) I would unhesitatingly say that most of the undergraduates had closed minds about many things, one of the greatest benefits of being there was to have them gently opened. (And I certainly include myself in that majority.) What is probably most troubling about this article is the suggestion that the academic staff have closed minds. Can it really be true that at a UK university academics – in any department – objected that a talk would be ‘antagonistic to woke culture’ or some sort of challenge to ‘diversity’? Most disturbing, if true.

H McLean

12th November 2019 at 8:36 pm

“…What is probably most troubling about this article is the suggestion that the academic staff have closed minds…”

Neil, I’m afraid it is far, far worse than you realise.

James Hamilton

12th November 2019 at 12:39 pm

Funny, when I read the part about “identity quake” I thought about all those post-Enlightenment Christians who have found out that their interpretation of the Bible doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny and promptly quaked their way over to atheism.

I can’t imagine that many of these progressive academics would have disabused them of their newfound certainties, so why does the university wish to protect this set of opinions?

Speaking from experience, something which people find particularly challenging to their identity is when someone from their “group” leaves to join the other group. Maybe the fundamentalists (of any flavour) in our society know there’s something wrong with their noetic system and they don’t want it face it.

Ven Oods

12th November 2019 at 12:54 pm

” …someone from their “group” leaves to join the other group.”

I believe it’s called ‘doing a Chuka’ or ‘amunna-lighting’.

madeup name

12th November 2019 at 10:54 am

The obvious answer to this problem is for the government to withhold funding from universities that withhold free speech.

Further to that, a new Universities Act that makes no platforming, censorship, and exclusion offences, with fines attached.

In the land of academia, funding is king. Every aspiring postgraduate student and researcher knows that. The activism shown here is not simply “campus politics” or a culture war, but it’s effects resemble economic sabotage. Careers are compromised or constrained; research is compromised or constrained; and in the end, the economic benefits of research is being compromised and constrained.

An article on Spiked recently drew attention to the economic power of women, when discussing the activism to remove the venus symbol from female sanitary products, that a simple boycott of those products would be a far more effective response than bickering with the advocates of it.

The same is probably true of universities. Universities have scratched around for funding and sought to reap the harvest of east Asian students, whilst brushing under the carpet the compromises made to secure the Asian income, in terms of censorship. Universities also, in addition to ramping up fees, often get into bed with corporations to fund “research institutes”.

In the end, as the American adage goes, money talks, and bullshit walks, and the most effective way to address the emergent police state in campuses, is to impose a financial cost to this activism – yes, you are at liberty to impose your world view, but not at the expense of the taxpayer.

Universities that want to go down this route of identity politics and censorship, can fund themselves as private universities, and be accountable to their shareholders, instead.

A fundamental difference between the right and the left, is that the right says, do what you like, but don’t ask me to pay for it; whilst the left says, we won’t let you do what you like, but you must pay anyway.

The best academic learning for advocates of the latter is to read the classic children’s book “The Little Red Hen”; it explains the principle in terms that even a child can understand.

The very concept of universities is as stake here, and a combination of withdrawal of public funding, fines, and legal protection for freedom of speech, academic enquiry, and publishing of contentious research is a fundamental requirement of a fully functioning world-class academic sector, anything else is unacceptable. Moreover, education and professional standards/regulations are amongst the most important exports to Britain, and our economy cannot be jeopardised by a tiny clique of irrational activists intent on persistent breach of the peace.

Perverted Lesbian

12th November 2019 at 7:56 am

I do not buy that only 12% of faculty are Conservative. What I see is a bunch of gilded cowards.
I wonder, would it not be a good idea to set up a new University, imagine the fun of creating a new ethos and programme, it would be such a thrill. I’m convinced there are enough intellectuals out there speaking out against exactly what this article is highlighting. Why doesn’t Jordan Peterson and some of the other ‘rebels’ *Seriously though, How did we get to a point when JBP vanilla views are deemed heresy* take up the mantel and say, OK, we think this way is better etc
If you cannot change the system, make a new one and compete against it. I mean I’m no professor of building Universities, but I bet there are plenty willing to at least look at the potential here.

K Tojo

12th November 2019 at 12:58 am

“…most students are still keen to be challenged. At the same time, they are living through a time in which they are repeatedly assured that their emotional needs must take precedence over all other considerations…”

More evidence of the feminisation of our culture. The report shows that women are significantly more opposed to free speech than men (see page 14 of the PDF version). That great bugbear of Left-liberal culture, the stereotype, prevails because it contains a strong core of truth. Confusing, I know, for those feminists who need to believe that women are at heart are wild, untamed, braver and more dangerous than “any man”.

Philip Humphrey

12th November 2019 at 7:40 am

I think it’s part of the general dumbing down of academia and the culture. Ideas can no longer be considered dispassionately using logic, but the dominant mode of thought is emotional (what I might “feel” is right/”fair” etc.). This leads to whole subjects where there is effectively little knowledge of any predictive power or value, and it tells us nothing about the real world out there. The humanities have long been infested with this, but I see worrying signs that it is creeping into the sciences. I’m now retired from working in science, but reading New Scientist can often be a depressing experience nowadays.

Neil John

12th November 2019 at 1:59 pm

“for those feminists who need to believe that women are at heart are wild, untamed, braver and more dangerous than “any man”.” Ah yes the screaming offensive femi warriors who physically and verbally assault members of faculty and other staff, safe in the knowledge that should some offended bloke give up putting up with such attacks and gives them the appropriate smack in the mouth as they might a bloke acting in the same way, he’ll get the blame and the sack. Such is their lack of self control and over abundance of self confidence, like so many s-TOO-dense, when they do similar things off campus it comes as a real shock that most people won’t put up with their childish bullshit and treats them ‘appropriately’, being actively ignored is so much more hurtful to them that getting ANY reaction.

Jim Lawrie

13th November 2019 at 12:09 am

Assault is a physical attack on a person. The correct word for name calling is an insult. Shouting aggressively is threatening behaviour. Describing an of the latter 2 as assault does not make them thus. Let’s not concede the meaning of the word.

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