Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 15, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
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Championing free speech

Proposed legislation from the government, which would see the introduction of a 'free speech champion' for universities, has recently been the subject of much controversy. Rachael Powell discusses the culture of free speech in universities and why she welcomes the legislation.
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Championing free speech

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Proposed legislation from the government, which would see the introduction of a ‘free speech champion’ for universities, has recently been the subject of much controversy. Rachael Powell discusses the culture of free speech in universities and why she welcomes the legislation.

Freedom of speech is a hot-button issue, and has come to the surface of debate once more since the UK government announced plans to implement legislation to strengthen free speech at universities. The proposed legislation will mean that universities and student unions can be fined for not promoting free speech; and students, staff and external speakers will be able to sue universities if they feel their right to free speech has been infringed. The Office for Students will appoint a ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion’ to investigate such infringements and offer advice.

The government has been criticised for focusing on a “phantom threat” rather than more pressing issues. The NUS responded, “the government would be much better to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need” such as “detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty” and that “there is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus”.

However, most students at Exeter would be aware that the Students’ Guild has imposed a temporary ban on all external speakers for events that don’t fall under wellbeing or employability categories, following complaints that a Debating Society event included Claire Fox and Joanna Williams who were accused of being transphobic. While this is a temporary measure until a new External Speaker Policy is in place, it is my belief that this still exemplifies very real attempts to de-platform controversial speakers at universities.

Academic freedom is paramount to a thriving campus, just as freedom of expression is central to a healthy democracy.

There is also an unspoken stigma around students supporting the Conservative party or Brexit. In 2017, the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquired into the state of free speech in UK universities and found concerns for “potential self-censorship” and “flagged intolerant attitudes and violent protest as potential obstacles to free speech”.

Nonetheless, even if there was not a current threat to freedom of speech at universities (which I would dispute), the protection of free speech should always be welcomed. Freedom of speech is a human right, and I believe it is illogical to argue that there needs to be a crisis for action to be taken.

Others have suggested that the proposed legislation is simply a way for the government to push their Tory agenda. The Guardian labelled it is as the Tories’ “war on woke”, and the University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady argued that the biggest threats to academic freedom are “from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus”. Yet this is a misunderstanding of the legislation – its intentions are to expand free speech, not to restrict it.

Academic freedom is paramount to a thriving campus, just as freedom of expression is central to a healthy democracy. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, argues that “free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind”.

Censorship and de-platforming will never change minds; it only creates an environment of hostility and intolerance

In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), he wrote “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility”; to not allow other people to hear a speaker because they believe the speaker is wrong is to assume “their certainty is the same as absolute certainty”. A variety of opinions cultivates a rich and wise mind. In my view, hearing opinions that oppose your own or are offensive should not be considered dangerous – instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to test your own opinion and to argue them in such a way that may change the oppositions’ minds. Censorship and de-platforming will never change minds; it only creates an environment of hostility and intolerance, which will only enforce unhelpful opinions.

According to UK law, free speech does not include speech that harasses or incites violence, or discrimination against protected characteristics. This means that ‘hate speech’ would not be protected on campuses even with the implementation of the proposed legislation; those who perform hate speech – either written or spoken – can still be prosecuted. The proposed legislation will only protect “lawful views”, although this does include views that may “offend, shock or disturb others”.

It’s about time that the UK government took free speech on campuses more seriously. Although I sympathise with Russell Group’s complaints that this could be “burdensome bureaucracy”, I think it is necessary and I welcome the much-needed legislation to ensure the protection of free speech at our universities.

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