How to defend free speech on campus

Gavin Williamson has every right to put pressure on universities to defend freedom – but will it work?

Frank Furedi

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It is truly a sad state of affairs when a government has to insist that universities that need bailouts to manage the economic impact of Covid-19 will first have to ‘demonstrate their commitment’ to freedom of speech.

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said that his government’s decision to provide financial support for struggling English universities will depend on the universities’ willingness to uphold free speech.

What is happening here? Throughout modern history it was the university that sought to uphold free speech against encroachment by governments. Until relatively recently, the commitment to freedom in all its forms was far more robust on campuses than in any other part of society.

When I began my career as an academic in 1974, I had no doubt that we enjoyed a wide degree of freedom to express even the most controversial of views. We felt reassured that the freedom to argue and debate was seen as being integral to academic life.

That was then. Today, in relation to freedom of expression, the relationship between the university and the world outside has been reversed. Linguistic policing and the ethos of censorship are flourishing on campuses. Indeed, these trends are now far more deeply embedded in the academy than in the rest of society. An academic with controversial views is far more likely to get a fair hearing in a pub or at public gatherings than inside many senior common rooms.

Tragically, higher education in the UK has become estranged from the values of freedom. When I was a student, many of us devoted considerable effort to testing the prevailing intellectual boundaries and to widening the scope for freedom. Today, many student activists seem to devote far more energy to the goal of constraining free speech. And yet, despite this, many members of the academic community have managed to convince themselves that the ‘free-speech crisis’ on campus is a myth.

There have been numerous reports about the scourge of No Platforming and cancel culture in universities. But a far more insidious development has been the growing tendency among students and academics to censor themselves. The fear of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong words has encouraged far too many sensible people to keep their heads down. Time and again I receive emails from academics praising me for taking a stand on free speech but also saying that they are reluctant to voice their views because of the possible negative consequences.

It is unlikely that Gavin Williamson’s measure of attaching funding to freedom of speech will have the desired consequences. Illiberal sentiments are deeply embedded in contemporary campus culture. There are no quick-fix solutions for encouraging people to embrace the value of free speech.

Nevertheless, at least Williamson is sending out a signal that, in a democratic society, freedom of speech, a foundational value of democracy, ought to be taken seriously by academics. Perhaps more people on campuses will be prepared to open their mouths if they feel that their institutions are at least formally committed to free speech.

Governments cannot impose freedom on institutions that have little appetite for it. Nor should they attempt to do so, for official intervention in academic life could further undermine the integrity of university life. However, in principle, governments have the right to insist that institutions that expect public funding should have a responsibility to uphold values that are integral to democratic public life. No doubt academics will rightly resent being lectured by government, but this is a problem of their own making

In the end, the future of free speech on campus depends on the attitudes of those in the academic community. The question at stake is this: are they going to squander the precious legacy of freedom and tolerance fought for by previous generations, or are they going to take matters into their own hands and reaffirm the core values of academic life?

Frank Furedi’s Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn The Art of Drawing Boundaries is published by Routledge.

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

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Comments

Ian Murray

30th July 2020 at 7:43 pm

But the ‘free speech’ you want to have is that which would deny it to others or would denigrate others. They are the right-wing haters and racists who should not be given a platform because they themselves would deny such a platform to others.

You don’t practice ‘free speech’ here. You moderate comments and deny a platform to those that you don’t want to hear from.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

21st July 2020 at 7:03 pm

Carpet salesman from Scarborough Gavin Williamson would have difficulty punching his way out of a paper bag. ‘Russia should go away and shut up’. It speaks volumes about the fundamental incompetence and lack of depth in Johnson’s government that he has put a lightweight like Williamson in charge of our children’s futures.

Gareth Roberts

21st July 2020 at 6:55 pm

At last, a sign that someone in government realises how bad things are in the education system.

christopher barnard

21st July 2020 at 4:37 pm

The threat of withdrawal of funding is the best way forward.

If there is one thing that PC crazed ‘academics’ care about more than the suppression of dissent it is their pay packets.

Highland Fleet Lute

21st July 2020 at 4:37 pm

“The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said that his government’s decision to provide financial support for struggling English universities will depend on the universities’ willingness to uphold free speech.”

Should be the same for the police.

CJ Hawes

21st July 2020 at 4:35 pm

It’s all one big experiment to see how far intolerant stances can be pushed and the crash test dummies are the supposedly intelligent and open minded university students. Problem is that it has been allowed to run a little too much and the “recently acquired knowledge” by those that tell us to educate ourselves has become ingrained in those same developing minds. Hard to see how we could walk more in the wrong direction. As long as democracy and legal systems hold firm however we’ll be ok and a number of fledgling minds will eventually grow up.

James Knight

21st July 2020 at 4:16 pm

“Gavin Williamson has every right to put pressure on universities to defend freedom – but will it work?”

Yes, for Cambridge academics who like to troll “White Lives Don’t Matter”.

Otherwise, no. It won’t work.

jmNZ

21st July 2020 at 4:00 pm

Gavin Williamson couldn’t put pressure on a soap-bubble.

Barry O’Barmy

21st July 2020 at 3:34 pm

It rather depends what you mean by “academia”. There are now many completely useless “universities” that are neither use nor ornament. When I was a Medical student in the first half of the nineteen sixties, there were far fewer universities, and they were real ones. Now any previous college of further education is called a university. I very much doubt if there is any “cancel culture” in Medical Schools or Dental Schools or Veterinary Schools or Schools of Engineering today, as it seems to me this occurs only in faculties that have too much time on their hands because they are providing only nonsense subjects to reluctant and stupid students.

Ray Diator

21st July 2020 at 4:00 pm

Nice one, well put. I wish I’d said that..

Jerry Owen

21st July 2020 at 2:40 pm

Frank is to generous to the authoritarians, government must intervene and force the issue. Government is partly there to protect it citizens, it must be seen to be doing so.

Stephen J

21st July 2020 at 1:41 pm

Yes but here is the thing….

When Frank was a student, the prevailing power was conservative, i.e. the establishment, the univerity institution, the whole shebang. The conservative way is to listen to other ideas and then either accepting them or confronting, it was relatively easy for that sort of construct to be undemined…. and the long march through the institutions began.

Unfortunately, those that now inhabit the corridors of power are not so accommodating and they dismiss anything that they dislike with as few words as possible, but accompanied by a threat or act, if they can get away with it…. So, you are far right, and then for the jammy topping, we are going to “cancel” you for being off message.

A return to normality is very much desired, but I doubt whether that bus is going to come along any time soon….

Jim Lawrie

21st July 2020 at 11:02 pm

I remember when I was a student in the late 70’s, early 80’s the aim of much of the left was to shut people up.

Mor Vir

21st July 2020 at 12:39 pm

> Governments cannot impose freedom on institutions that have little appetite for it. Nor should they attempt to do so <

Oh yes they can, and arguably they should.

A government could simply pass a law that it is illegal for any university or other educational establishment to sack or censure any staff or student for the expression of any views whatsoever – and any other employer. That would get the job done.

If free speech is a 'foundational value' of a democratic society then that society and its government should impose the exercise of that value. Otherwise it is not really a foundational value of the society and the pretence needs to end.

The reality is that this is not a society that has free speech as a foundational value and the government has not either. The TP no less then LP has zero attachment or interest in free speech, otherwise it would impose it by law. The two parties want social control not free speech.

Rather, free speech is an illusion in this society, a pretence, like democracy, that functions only as a posture to facilitate the compliance of citizens with the established order and as a basis on which to criticise or even militarily attack other societies, be it Syria or China. TP is interested only in the maintenance of the pretence and the pretext.

C J

21st July 2020 at 3:54 pm

>>A government could simply pass a law that it is illegal for any university or other educational establishment to sack or censure any staff or student for the expression of any views whatsoever – and any other employer.<<

IANAL, but surely existing laws already cover such proscriptions on freedom of speech?

Philip Humphrey

21st July 2020 at 4:41 pm

In theory, yes, the existing laws should cover it, but they clearly don’t work. Perhaps it is time to make them more explicit, and narrowly define what you can get sacked for (for example anything directly derogatory or defamatory to the employer’s business or customers), anything else employers would have to face a tribunal.

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