Free speech: Is a free speech champion compatible with promoting equal representation of views on campus?

You’ve no doubt heard the terms ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no-platforming’ floating about in the media – but you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. There is a growing fear among some academics and politicians that free speech is being stifled at universities, and that this fear of being ‘cancelled’ for ‘politically incorrect’ opinions is damaging intelligent debate and intellectual curiosity. Others would argue that demanding a degree of tolerance and respect from those in a position of influence is just part of living in a progressive and civilized society, and free speech should not be weaponised in the defence of harmful or archaic views. This debate has become pretty ferocious, and is at the heart of what some right-wing commentators have (perhaps unhelpfully) dubbed ‘the culture wars’.  

Responding to concerns about the curtailment of free speech and free debate, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has recently announced plans for a ‘Free Speech Champion’ to be appointed to the Office for Students board, with the aim of strengthening academic freedom. Notably, the Free Speech Champion will be able to investigate potential infringements of the new registration condition on freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education

Following this announcement, Bath Time was invited to the online launch of the ‘Free Speech Champions’, an activist group whose aim is to ensure that free speech is accepted and endorsed on university campuses. Founding member Inaya Folarin Iman argued that as universities are “the brain of our society”, we should be willing and able to discuss all ideas, citing a recent survey which claimed that 40% of students are self-censoring their views for fear of recrimination.  

An interesting take on free speech came from Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organisation that campaigns to protect free speech at universities.  He argued that rather than free speech being the preserve of the elite, “people in power are actually threatened by free speech’’. The problem facing universities, he claimed, is that “the lack of right-wing views amongst university staff means that these left-wing individuals are able to demonise those with conservative views as they don’t come into contact with them’’. This is where our views began to differ. It’s true that historically, universities have been known to lean towards the left – but political ideology is neither a fixed part of a person’s identity nor a protected characteristic, so it’s surely hardly appropriate to impose some kind of Tory quota. There may also be an element of self-selection; how do we know that universities are discriminating by political leaning, as opposed to more right-wing individuals simply being less likely to seek careers in academia?  

The Free Speech Champions claim to advocate ‘tolerance’. However, the cracks in this stance began to show when a postgraduate at the University of Bristol, spoke about their experiences in Bristol’s ‘Free Speech Society’. They noted that whenever they ‘got involved in the ‘trans debate’’’ they were called ‘transphobic’ by peers. Similarly, a final year at the University of Cambridge, expressed how upsetting it is when fellow students tell them they aren’t “being kind” by discussing how they doesn’t want transgender women who self-identify to be in “women-only spaces”. I had two main contentions here. Firstly, many would argue that there is no such thing as a ‘trans debate’ because you cannot debate the legal and political rights of transgender people to exist freely within society. Secondly, surely these free speech advocates must concede that while the right to free speech gives you the right to speak your mind, it also gives others the right to speak theirs – even if this results in them disagreeing with you, or calling you ‘unkind’. The phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ springs to mind. 

On the issue of self-censorship in schools, a sixth-form student claimed that “as a young person you feel pressure to have certain beliefs and think how everyone else thinks”, which they believe is damaging to freedom of thought and expression. This may well be a valid concern – but there was no elaboration as to which views or opinions they felt were unfairly judged as unacceptable. This was a common theme among all the speakers at this event – all claim to be concerned by cancel culture and their encounters with the ‘woke brigade’, but none of them mention what exactly it is that they feel prevented from saying. To be honest, this can make you assume the worst, however unfair that may be. Many of us remember at time in school when it was perfectly acceptable to use racist and homophobic slurs, for example. Should we be complaining that children nowadays are educated, open-minded and refuse to allow intolerance to take place?  

Although some interesting points were put forward, there were many which seemed contradictory. For example, on the topic of online abuse, Ella Whelan, a political commentator and journalist, conceded that “it is really bad when people like Marcus Rashford or Dianne Abbott are racially abused”. Does this not go against the argument for completely free speech? Whelan clearly agrees that we cannot allow the spread of hatred, which indicates that compassion and human decency will always prevail over an unrestricted ‘right to free speech’. This is encouraging, but it does beg the question…what exactly is the threat to the free speech that they are so ardently championing? 

Amid a sea of contradictory views came a refreshing perspective on the free speech debate. A Canadian, whose family had emigrated from Iran, expressed exasperation with the tendency for Western liberals to insult the West, citing its colonial history and other past ills. They said that westerners should be wary of curtailing free speech as it is a precious commodity, and should recognise the privilege they have to live in countries that enable them to lead reasonably free lives.  

On the whole, having witnessed this discussion and considered the arguments, I would argue that having a ‘Free Speech Champion’ goes against the ethics of the very notion it is tasked with defending. The label ‘Champion’ implies that this individual is above all others and has the final say in deciding who can speak. This suggests that despite universities being private organisations, the government’s right to monitor free speech is more important than a university’s right to their own liberty to refuse an individual to speak publicly on their campus. 

Ultimately, I believe it’s important not to conflate rights with privileges. No one has a ‘right’ to speak on a campus, and no one has an obligation to give you a platform. It is a privilege granted by the elected Students’ Union and university staff. Say what you like, as the free speech champions so strongly advocate, but don’t assume that anyone will want to listen. 

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