Free speech

In 1642, as the English civil war broke out, government control of printing presses collapsed.  In this new censorship-free environment, all sorts of ideas, previously suppressed were published.  Many senior figures became worried, and it was that worry which lay behind the pamphletAreopagitica, by John Milton – later the author of Paradise Lost.  Almost four centuries later, Areopagiticaremains a great statement of freedom.  “Opinion” wrote Milton – and by “opinion” he meant disagreement – “opinion in good men [and by ‘men’ he meant people] is but knowledge in the making”.  Much of Areopagiticaisn’t the easiest of reads.  Milton’s love for classical language makes many of his sentences difficult to follow to a twenty-first century reader.  But that phrase leaps out.

Milton’s phrase comes to mind in the face of Gavin Williamson’s proposals on free speech in universities.  For Williamson, the enemy is ‘cancel culture’; universities are ‘woke’ environments in which dissenting speech outside a perceived consensus is at best unpopular and at worst squeezed out.  The evidence for this is pitifully thin.  There are a  small number of high profile cases in which invitations to outside speakers have been withdrawn (usually) by student societies.  But these are so few in number as to be endlessly recycled as examples and in each case the facts, once examined, turn out to be at odds with the media representation.

Government articulates its perception that universities have tended to become ‘mono-cultures’ in which dominant ideas make life more difficult for the relatively small numbers of university staff, though perhaps more students, who hold particular views – in favour, say, of Brexit, or of more culturally conservative ideas.  The solid evidence that universities are difficult or unwelcoming places for minority views is scanty at best, but this is a more difficult area to explore.  It’s important to acknowledge the concerns of minorities, perhaps especially of minority views which are uncongenial or even unpalatable to the majority, and this needs careful scrutiny. I suspect we are all readier to defend the views of people we agree with than those we disagree with. Universities, and their Student Unions, which are legally separate entities, should and must be places of vigorous debate within the law, but no-one has any right in any setting to be deliberately offensive to others. Milton’s full sentence is even more apposite than the partial quotation above: “where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making”.

Given the paucity of evidence to support what looks like a heavy-handed and risky intervention, it’s difficult to assess what is going on here.   As the ‘slow news’ outlet, Tortoise pointed out, “our political class is made up of people who went to more external speaker meetings at university with politicians than proper lectures”. The government has outlined several proposals: speakers who believe that they have been “disinvited” from speaking on campus or staff who feel their views have been obstructed,  will be able to sue universities; a “free speech tsar” will oversee universities’ compliance with free speech; universities will have a positive duty to promote free speech. As it is, free speech on campuses is already protected under the law.  The 1986 Education Actrequires universities to “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”. It’s difficult to see what practical consequence the latest intervention will have.

But this is not about practical interventions.  It is about political signalling.  And that feels uncomfortable from a government of any persuasion.  The free exchange of views, the protection of dissent, the subjection of received wisdom to open scrutiny, the protection of minority points of view  – these are vital elements in open societies and institutions of advanced learning, and they are too valuable to be the subject of political shenanigans.  Of course there are tensions in any society between the protection of dissent and the protection of minority points of view: we all have obligations as well as rights. That requires tact and empathy, hard listening as much as offering opinions. There is legitimate room for discussion about some of the potential tensions here, and how quite different views can be accommodated. Universities, perhaps like all institutions, are having to accommodate to a world in which social media amplify disagreement and too often identify angry discord.

There are always ferocious arguments about what educational institutions – both schools and universities – ‘must’ (or ‘must not’) teach, how they ‘should’ (or ‘should not’) teach it and how different, discordant views might be reconciled.  There are especially angry disputations about history, as the parallel arguments about cultural institutions and representations of the past make plain.  For me, there’s one irreducible line in English history which I’d like every politician to take note of.  It was – seventeenth century again – Oliver Cromwell’s letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650.  “I beseech you”, said Cromwell, “in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.” Many of Cromwell’s actions were thoroughly discreditable.  But in that line, he was as correct as Milton was.



6 thoughts on “Free speech

  1. As a university lecturer with politically right-wing views, I’m very conscious that many colleagues are politically left-wing. My left-wing colleagues have no problem jumping onto a soapbox in the office, at zoom meetings or in the classroom. I have quietly tolerated many a speech, even a few that I really should have challenged. For example, when the PM got CV19 one colleague said “…there is a God”. But I keep my right-wing politics to myself. They will clearly not serve me well. This was particularly evident during the Brexit campaign where ‘remainers’ implied that Brexiteers were unintelligent and racist. As a Brexiteer and academic teaching diverse groups of students fairly and with complete comfort, nothing could be further from the truth. But given the open hostility to Brexit among staff (far less so the students) I remained silent on the issue; occasionally being found out by refusing to bang a drum with the others. There is a problem. Perhaps it starts in social media, but it’s deeply embedded in Universities too.
    You need to be on the other side to see it.
    I will not be adding a real name and email when submitting this – ….. ask me why.

  2. I do wish that you had covered so called ‘morality topics’. If a staff member or student were going around campus loudly stating opinions on Transfolk/black folk/women etc which were at best outdated and at worst demonstrably phobic and/or inciting violence against their target, should their ‘right to free speech’ still be protected and the individual sent on their merry way? Any reasonable human being would say no. Free speech cannot and should not be protected over consequences, especially if it is meant to be dehumanising.

    Those who decry ‘cancel culture’ seem to forget that the rest of us don’t have to tolerate bigotry in any form, just because it comes from someone they admire or upholds a belief they share.

  3. It is slightly ironic to see that Gavin Williamson as a our new “Champion” of free speech given that the parliamentary human rights committee rubbished claims of “wholesale censorship of debate in universities” and concluded ” the press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality”.

    In any case, the use of free speech, or in a human rights context freedom of expression has often been hijacked by political movements of all types to suppress challenges to state led falsehoods and misinformation. We are of course, in a new age of Populism, with misinformation and falsehoods replacing evidence to create chaos and confusion. Social media has let the genie out of the bottle such that in some ways we have never had so much “free speech”, including speech that is full of hatred, and politically extreme. In the absence of state evidence, surely Universities are best placed to be the market place for ideas to be espoused, tested and where appropriate challenged rather than an opportunity for Governments to” concoct threats out of thin air”,

  4. You refer to Gavin Williamson’s belief that ‘dissenting speech outside a perceived consensus is at best unpopular and at worst squeezed out’. Whilst I agree with the gist of your argument, I would like to mention that SHU’s recent adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism could be regarded as another instance of universities impeding ‘dissenting speech outside a perceived consensus’.
    Along with many others, it is my belief that the on-going occupation and annexation of land by Israel should be an issue that can be openly discussed at university. Indeed, a United Nations press release dated 5th May 2020 once again refers to the violation of ‘resolution 2334 (2016), which calls for an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and the fulfilment of the rights of the Palestinian people, including to self-determination and independence’. Others are worried that the politicising of anti-Semitism is a cover to protect the state of Israel from criticism; for example, Jonathan Cook (in an article titled: Charges of Anti-Semitism & the Silencing of Dissent in Europe, December 15, 2020) writes that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz included a December 2020 feature on how ‘Jewish organizations and their allies in Germany … are openly weaponizing anti-Semitism not only to damage the reputation of Israel’s harsher critics, but also to force out of the public and cultural domain — through a kind of “anti-Semitism guilt by association” — anyone who dares to entertain criticism of Israel’.
    It is interesting to see how there has also been pressure to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism from politicians in the UK, and even veiled threats to future funding for non-compliance. For example, in relation to the non-adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism by a number of UK universities, Kate Green MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, wrote in the Jewish Chronicle on December 7, 2020 that ‘The Office for Students – the regulatory body for UK universities – has announced that it will explore what practical steps can be taken to ensure wider adoption of the IHRA definition across universities. This includes the possibility of placing further conditions on funding’.
    In your article, you write that ‘The free exchange of views, the protection of dissent, the subjection of received wisdom to open scrutiny, the protection of minority points of view – these are vital elements in open societies and institutions of advanced learning, and they are too valuable to be the subject of political shenanigans’.
    Does SHU’s adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism support the ‘the free exchange of views’ on the on-going situation in the occupied Palestinian territories?

    • Thank you for your comment. I can assure you that the adoption of this definition will not limit legitimate criticism and debate at Sheffield Hallam. The university actively encourages the free exchange of views – the ability to rigorously discuss and challenge ideas goes right to the heart of what it means to be a university. We are wholly committed to upholding and protecting the rights of students and staff to freely exchange views on issues related to Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.

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