The government intends to both protect and prohibit speech
- ON PROTECTING SPEECH -
On Tuesday 11 May, Her Majesty the Queen summarised the government’s agenda for the year ahead through her State re-opening of parliament. Around 30 new bills were circulated for imminent debate by parliament, and ‘speech’ was a theme that ran through a handful of these legislative proposals.
To discuss one of the landmark proposed pieces of law, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, ADF UK welcomed independent researcher and academic Noah Carl to a webinar on Friday 14 May. He articulately outlined how this bill, if passed into law, could be really beneficial to academics and students alike, but qualified this with a warning that it might not be able to tackle the root causes of a growing culture of censorship.
To the relief of many, the government has come out strong in favour of civil liberties in this bill. By introducing it, the Education Secretary has chosen to directly tackle the ever-growing problem where robust debate in the academic sphere has been downgraded by a culture of cancelling, no-platforming, and censorship.
Recognising that in the name of offence, outrage, political-correctness, and identity politics, visiting speakers, students, academics, and non-academic staff members, have all been victims of an enthusiastic attempt to silence unpopular views, Secretary of State Gavin Williamson MP decided to fight back.
Although universities have historically been under legal obligations to protect speech, these have proved hollow in dealing with what has become a deep-rooted problem impacting students, academics and staff alike. Parliamentarians now have to vote on new, more effective measures.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
Amongst other things, the bill includes a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to directly investigate alleged breaches of free speech; a clause requiring universities to ‘actively promote’ speech by law and have a strong Code of Practice outlining how they respond to speech issues; and powers for the Office for Students to directly fine universities for fostering censorship. The measures therefore put new duties on universities, and rely upon an external body to monitor them.
“For students like Julia Rynkiewicz and Felix Ngole who affirmed the Bible’s views on marriage and life, this is a welcomed development.”
For students like Julia Rynkiewicz and Felix Ngole who affirmed the Bible’s views on marriage and life, this is a welcomed development. Their ‘orthodox’ opinions landed their careers in muddy water when their universities came down strongly against their beliefs, and a Free Speech Champion could have provided them much needed relief. In both providing support to individuals affected by censorship and advocating for compensation on their behalf, a Champion could alter the power imbalance currently against those with minority opinions.
A deeper, cultural and legal problem
But while these steps outwardly communicate that the Department for Education thinks that free speech needs to be better protected in law, Noah Carl, raised some important points of concern with the ideas, despite overall appreciating and welcoming the reforms.
Discussing that potentially the biggest problem in universities is the hostile environment for dissidents (i.e. the habits and practices universities promote which discourages academic freedom) such as via open letters and internal investigations, doubt was cast on the efficacy of the proposals. Adding to this is the culture of self-censorship felt by students and academics alike, which the ADF UK campus poll revealed. 50 per cent of respondents said they felt their peers would treat them differently if they expressed their true views on issues important to them.
This highlights a deeper, more pernicious problem that only a truly politically independent Free Speech Champion will be able to help tackle. For, if the problem in universities really is to be tackled, a robust interpretation of free speech is needed – one which is not swayed by fashionable topics – and an unashamed willingness of the Champion to uphold it.
This role will require resilience, because on topics like gender, marriage, politics and religion, popular culture has shaped and directed much of the endemic censorship infecting campuses. Without getting to the root of this problem, Williamson’s free speech legislation might only act as a sticky plaster responding to incidents that happen to be reported.
Also, while vague ‘hate speech’ laws remain, students might still be able to claim that their rights and opinions are more important than those of their more conservative peers or lecturers, regardless of this new bill. With the current interpretation of ‘hate crime’, an individual’s offence can too easily be used to silence others.
Police across the UK have been only too keen to investigate in these situations – even when there’s no chargeable crime. With even looser anti-speech laws being recently passed across the Union, like the Scottish Hate Crime Act where utterly subjective offences include ‘abusive’ speech and unintentional ‘hate’ speech can land an individual in criminal trouble, laws which are symptomatic of a censorial culture can still override the protections from the new universities bill.
If a Free Speech Champion is appointed to oversee the hostile university setting – which in itself is really needed – it will have to maintain a strong line on upholding the value of controversial and unpopular speech, or risk the role just being symbolic.
Also, a great deal of training for universities, students unions, and the Office for Students will be needed so that a uniform approach to handling speech issues is agreed and understood. It will make no sense for one university to champion rights while another is apathetic to them.
Yet, for the intention by the government to introduce the the new Higher Education bill should be celebrated. ADF UK welcomes the bold move to try and tackle the growing problem, and remains optimistic that it will go some way to turning the tide on academic intolerance.