Talking points

Four students offer their views on the free speech champion and campus censorship

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When education secretary Gavin Williamson announced his proposal in February for a free speech champion to ensure views were not being censored in universities by “political correctness”, it was only the latest round in debate over free speech on campus that goes back decades.

According to the government, the aim of the free speech champion is to “investigate potential infringements of the new registration condition on freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education”, a job they will do from their position on the board of the Office for Students, an independent regulator of higher education.

Until now, universities have not had strong government regulation of their free speech policies but recently ministers have been alarmed by reports of speakers being “no-platformed” or “de-platformed”, meaning disinvited to speak, including Amber Rudd MP, who was de-platformed by the UN Women Oxford UK society at Oxford University over her role in the Windrush scandal.

The NUS has a no-platform policy dating back to 1973, and states in its articles of association that no members of organisations or groups identified as holding racist or fascist views can stand for any elected NUS position. Organisations that were subject to this ban include the English Defence League and the British National Party.

The NUS also has a similar policy called the NUS LGBT Campaign that refuses a platform to those considered to be transphobic, such as Julie Bindel. There is also a policy to refuse a platform to those considered to be rape deniers or apologists, following George Galloway’s statements about rape when asked about the allegations of sexual assault facing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Some believe that these approaches are needed to avoid hate speech on campus, and protect minorities and marginalised groups. Others say free speech should not be regulated at all, and universities especially are the place for open and free discussion, and the sharing of ideas. But is it a problem at all? In 2018, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said there was no major crisis of free speech in universities. And according to the Office for Students, there were 62,094 requests by students for external speaker events in English universities in 2017-18 but only 53 were rejected by the student union or the university authorities.

Members of student societies and groups give their views.

Dylan Laugharne works on the committee for the Conservative Society at York University

What do you think about the free speech champion idea?
“I’m in favour of it, and so is the society, because we think free speech is an integral part of the country that we’re a part of and it has been for much of our history. Famously, you have people from across the world who have been persecuted for their political opinions coming to London to give their free opinions. You had Marx, and the first communist meeting occurring in London, and even though we obviously disagree with Marxism, we allow them the right to speak about it.

“We think this is very important because in America, there’s such a divide and villainisation of either political side, and it’s threatening free speech to an extent. It’s important Britain doesn’t follow that route. Although much of America is great in my opinion, universities at times seem like battlegrounds. University is supposed to be about the free expression of ideas, debating and having conversations. I think if you’re villainising and excluding people for what they’re saying, then that neglects that whole purpose.”

Do you think it’s realistic to say cancel culture/woke culture is an attack on free speech?
“Perhaps it isn’t right to say it’s happening right now in Britain. I’m not one of those people who is like: ‘Ooh, we’re going to get cancelled for saying the slightest thing.’ I believe in freedom of speech but not freedom from consequences. Although there are obviously certain occasions where cancel culture is perhaps applicable in extreme circumstances, I think we need to make sure that it’s not the routine. I’m not saying that’s the case yet, but this free speech champion will prevent it from going that far. It would be nice for both sides to listen to each other because we don’t want to form echo chambers.

“Quite often I think people don’t speak about their opinions because they feel a bit worried about getting vilified for it, even if it’s not that strong. The amount of people who secretly admitted to me that they’re a Tory, they say it like I’m a Catholic priest and they’re confessing.”

Have you been a victim of university guidelines that have violated your freedom of speech?
“No. The closest we may have gone was last year before I joined the university. We have a social called the Fox Hunting Social, which isn’t what it sounds like – we don’t actually go out hunting. I think in part because of the name, it did get quite a lot of negative attention, but I don’t think any official university stuff occurred.”

Some may say it’s ironic that a Conservative government is seeking to regulate free speech through a “champion”, since conservatism is usually about less regulation. What are your thoughts?
“I’m against regulation for the most part. However, I think regulation to protect an inherent freedom is important, and I think if it’s seen that those freedoms have the potential to come under threat, then regulation has to be put in place to ensure those freedoms.”

The Conservative Party has a history of censoring speech, such as Section 28, blasphemy laws, and restrictions on “extremist” content in school. How can it be trusted to protect free speech?
“I’m not a supporter of any censorship that has occurred in the past in the Conservative Party, Labour Party or whatever party. I don’t view things with a party-political aspect – if Labour did it, I’d hate them for it, if the Conservatives did it, I’d hate them for it.

“About the restrictions that the education secretary has put in about extremist material in schools: freedom of speech does not include incitement to violence. I don’t support teachers teaching anything that could cause incitement to violence. I’m not sure to what extent it goes. If it’s just anti-capitalist stuff then I don’t support the restrictions, but because children are the most vulnerable to radicalisation on all sides, I don’t believe in educating them in any way that could incite violence.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, Mic Adams works on the Socialist Society of Sunderland’s committee, and shares his views

What are your thoughts on Gavin Williamson’s free speech champion idea?
“While I think conceptually the free speech champion idea is potentially positive in that it allows a higher degree of freedom of expression among students, in reality free speech has been used as a dog whistle by those on the extreme right for quite some time.

“To look at free speech as a talking point in the current political climate is to take that into consideration and as such, I think that there is far too much ambiguity to allow hate speech in the free speech champion idea.”

Mic Adams: censorship is applied inconsistently

What do you say to the idea that there is an attack on free speech?
“I would say that censorship is applied inconsistently in a way which will negatively affect the right when it suits the establishment and other times, they will censor the left when it suits the establishment. I wouldn’t say that the ‘attack on free speech’ is a new phenomenon. Rather I would go as far as to argue that since the state’s inception there has been a degree of censorship that just continues to develop, depending on the interests of those at the time.”

On campus, what threat is there of being silenced, deplatformed, or censored as a student society?
“To my immediate knowledge, the effects of the 2010 protests [student protests against the increase in tuition fees by the coalition government] have led to lecturers being obligated to report student organising if it is deemed to be in breach of a certain degree of radicality, which I would argue is a form of censorship which can realistically lead to arrest. Outside of that there isn’t a huge amount of issues regarding free speech to my knowledge.”

Should there be limits to what speech is allowed on campus?
“Absolutely. People who ignore the fact that they are offending people by using certain words and phrases should receive the consequences for doing so, because they are actively making campuses unpleasant for their own benefit.” 

Cameron Cosh, chair of the Manchester Young Conservatives, shows his support for the idea

What do you hope this free speech champion will be?
“I hope he will actively, and even aggressively go after any university or any student union that is deemed to be limiting freedom of speech. That is my preferable outcome for the whole thing.”

How many universities are guilty of this?
“If you look through the bylaws of the universities, there are lots of quotes that say you should never have a speaker that would unreasonably offend certain groups and you shouldn’t say anything or engage in any debate that would cause anyone to feel offended. My issue with that, and I know I can speak on behalf of a lot of others in my group, is who are they to tell us what we can or can’t talk about? Who defines what is offensive? I’m offended by that idea, that they would like to prohibit my free speech. But does that mean you’re not allowed to say it? I think there’s a tilt to the left where they’re trying to make everything operate on their terms.

“Germaine Greer is banned from UoM because she has ‘transphobic’ views, but it seems like straightforward, common sense views that a very small and convinced minority – who are determined to have no one offended by anything – are kicking off about.

“There are people who represent us in parliament who are much more controversial than that, but in academia, you can’t have anything controversial like that in order to talk about ideas, philosophy and sociology, and I just think that’s ridiculous.”

Cameron Cosh: who decides what we can say?

Should there be any limits to free speech?
“Unless you’re directly inciting and telling someone to go attack someone, no. I hate the slippery slope argument so much, but I think it applies here. First of all, who decides what we can say? No one really. We can all agree that there shouldn’t be incitements to violence, but no one can agree on what is controversial. Some art students in the student union might agree but that’s not really representative of the student body.

“As abhorrent as it is, I think you should be able to say what you want, and there’s a reason for that: you don’t want actual Nazis, white supremacists, or communists to have a real grievance claim, because it lends a small element of legitimacy towards their argument.

“Allowing bad people to live underground allows them to thrive. You want to see them so people are able to shoot them down.”

Some may say it’s ironic that a Conservative government is seeking to regulate free speech through a “champion”, since conservatism is usually about less regulation. What are your thoughts?
“I would trust them more than I would trust essentially what are unelected, jumped-up student politicians.

“I trust the government to be fairer more than I do a 21 year old with their own political biases. Tory ministers are of course going to have their own biases, but I think that they want everything to be fair and flat, as opposed to some student politician who wants to push their brand of politics.”

The Conservative Party has a history of censoring speech, such as Section 28, blasphemy laws, and restrictions on “extremist” content in school. How can it be trusted to protect free speech?
“You’re lying to yourself if you think Boris Johnson is this staunch, pro-Section 28, pro-blasphemy laws, small-c conservative. He’s the biggest liberal that you could find in the Conservative Party next to David Cameron.

“I would remind you that it was Robert Peel who helped repeal the Bloody Code, so there is a history of liberalisation in that aspect as well.

“With things like anti-capitalist material, there is some balancing out. Schools aren’t there for indoctrination. The government wants to avoid any indoctrination, whether that be from Nazis or communists.”

A member of the Newcastle University Student Union, Ella Williams (main photo) is the editor of student newspaper the Courier

What are your thoughts on Gavin Williamson’s free speech champion idea, and what do you think about the idea that there are restrictions on free speech on campus?
“Even if there was an attack on free speech on campus, the fact that’s the thing that’s been publicised so much by the Conservative Party now feels a little bit misguided given that there are a lot more issues that are more pressing for students at the moment such as the Education Department’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and also the demand for tuition fee refunds.

“In terms of whether there is a problem with freedom of speech in universities, I think yes, but I think it’s overblown and it’s not just on universities, and on both sides.

“A lot of marginalised groups on campus feel silenced a lot of the time, from transphobia, racism and sexism, but they don’t tend to use freedom of speech terminology to express that, but it’s the same issue.

“I think there’s this idea on the right that if you give everyone the right to say something, it’ll create a free marketplace of ideas, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true because we don’t live in an equal society. It’s easier for people with more power, money and influence to get their ideas on top.”

Some may say it’s ironic that a Conservative government is seeking to regulate free speech through a “champion”, since conservatism is usually about less regulation. What are your thoughts?
“I’m not sure why free speech has become a conservative idea. It used to be considered a very liberal idea. I think a lot of it is to do with social media, and those with power or influence are those being heard. And with social media people can get an audience more easily, and as a result they’re being met with more criticism, being called racist and transphobic.

“It goes both ways. They’ve got their ways of knocking people down: “SJWs” [social justice warriors], “snowflakes”, etc, so I don’t agree that it’s a left-wing problem that is hurting only conservatives.”

What do you hope this free speech champion will be?
“I don’t think it’s hugely necessary or helpful, and I think the timing of it is odd – to consider this being the biggest issue that’s facing us at the moment.

“I think the ability to speak freely on campus is important, but it’s about making sure there’s an awareness of the way power and influence interact with free speech and how it makes it makes it imperfect to just say ‘everyone can speak freely’.

The Conservative Party has a history of censoring speech, such as Section 28, blasphemy laws, and restrictions on “extremist” content in school. How can it be trusted to protect free speech?
“It’s very easy to cherry-pick examples of when left wing people have acted in ways deemed to be ‘anti-free speech’, but there are plenty of examples of Conservatives doing exactly the same thing.”

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