Free speechers are missing the point

The newly announced Higher Education Bill won’t be the great champion of free speech that people think it will be

Artillery Row

Bills don’t always breed good behaviour. From trying to deal with rowdy teenagers with ASBOs to the newly proposed anti-misogyny law to criminalise catcallers, using the heavy hand of government to manage the way in which we interact with each other often does more harm than good.

The Bill seeks to force universities to take free speech seriously, on pain of financial loss

How, then, do you deal with problems that keep arising — like censorship on campus? For over 10 years the issue of free speech on campus has been dismissed as right-wing scaremongering, despite repeated bans on speakers, events, literature and even songs by student unions and university administrations alike. Pressure from people who don’t even attend university, spending their time creating Twitter storms, have frightened student groups into cancelling speakers at the last minute. With Kafka-esque bureaucracy and universities withholding the power of veto over student organisers, it’s easier to host a wrestling match in the middle of the library than it is to host a political meeting on most university campuses today.

The government’s answer to the issue of campus censorship is its newly announced Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which many free-speech campaigners have welcomed. The Bill promises to impose “legal duties” on universities to require them to “defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’”. The Office for Students would have the power to fine not only universities but students’ unions too, as well as hosting a complaints scheme for students and staff “who have suffered loss due to a breach”. In short, the Bill seeks to force universities to take free speech seriously, on pain of financial loss.

In the spirit of free speech, let me be clear: there is nothing freedom-loving about this bill. Not only does it attempt to instil an American-style litigious approach to dealing with issues of censorship on campus, but it also completely misunderstands the nature of what is going on at our universities. Yes, academics have often been threatened with censorship by students and activists. But giving financial compensation to speakers who have had their lectures cancelled due to their controversial views does nothing to benefit the political defence of free speech more broadly.

The bigger issue for students and staff is often self-censorship. Academics report feeling unable to talk and think about controversial issues for fear of being reported by their colleagues, and students often refrain from engaging in tough political debates for the same reason. For all the lists of events that got banned by zealous students’ union officers, there are hundreds more that never left the planning stage because of fears of rocking the boat.

Free speech is not a human right; it’s a political freedom

In fact, it’s laughable to even call students’ unions a union any longer. Thanks to changes in the law in 2010, most “unions” are now answerable to the university administrative board, instead of their members. If students want to push the boat out and risk holding a contentious (or even mildly opinionated) event on campus, they have no formal means of gaining support when the university decided they might be bringing them “into disrepute”. All of this leads to a perhaps understandable cowardice at the heart of the contemporary student body — one that says put your head down, get your degree, and don’t you dare think about pissing anyone off.

On top of the lazy legalistic desire to fine away the problem of campus censorship, it’s hard to take the government’s commitment to free speech seriously when it refuses to scrap the Prevent Strategy — a racist policy targeting Muslim students which limits all discussion of extremism in the name of preventing terrorism. It’s also hard to believe that the government cares about free speech when it presses on with plans to limit speech on social media through the Online Harms Bill and rubber stamps limitations on political protest through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The university campus is not a sealed bubble — campus culture both influences and is influenced by the wider political climate. Education secretary Gavin Williamson says it is a “basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate”. But free speech is not a human right; it’s a political freedom. It cannot be granted by government ministers; it must be kept alive and constantly defended by the actions of citizens.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that some feel comfortable outsourcing political battles to lawyers and ministers. There is no doubt that censorship is a very real problem, stifling our ability to debate and discuss the ideas that shape society from the university hall to the pub garden to the world of Twitter. A small group of petit bourgeois commentators and politicos have decided that the “harm” caused by discussing tricky issues is too much to bear, and that free discourse is tantamount to right-wing violence.

We must fight for free speech with no ifs, no buts, and no Bills

We need to have the courage to call out this patronising claptrap, instead of hiding behind the skirts of Gavin Williamson. Universities are supposed to be sites of intellectual daring, where the next generation of thinkers come up with exciting ideas. We should encourage students and academics to publish and be damned, and to mount solidarity strikes, protests and public campaigns in support of free speech when it is undermined. Most of all, we need to understand that fostering a climate of free speech after years of liberal whining won’t happen overnight with a wave of a legal wand — it takes courage and principle. We must convince people that free speech is central to any open, democratic and progressive society. We must fight for free speech with no ifs, no buts, and no Bills.

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