So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission

The Government remains a greater threat to free speech than a few over-woke students

This week the Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP has called on the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, to ensure that the institutions under its purview guarantee free speech. He was commenting on the launch of a consultation by the new Office for Students on how it will regulate universities.

First of all, we should remind ourselves that Universities have a statutory duty to protect free speech: Section 43 of the Education Act (No.2) 1986. This section was added to the legislation amid similar concerns around No Platforming of Conservative politicians. So Mr Johnson’s suggestions are perhaps less radical than he supposes.

Second, there is something vaguely satirical about a Government forcing institutions to protect free speech. Reading Johnson’s comments, I was reminded of the Scarfolk Town Council poster ‘Free Speech Is Now Compulsory‘.

'Free Speech Is Now Compulsory' from Scarfolk Town Council (Richard Littler)
‘Free Speech Is Now Compulsory’ from Scarfolk Town Council (Richard Littler)

I have worked on so many cases of censorship in the past few years, that I take it as axiomatic that governments tend not to care for free speech. So when a government minister makes a great show of defending freedom of expression, I confess I become suspicious. It could be that I have become too cynical. But I suspect that Mr Johnson’s defence of this kind of freedom of expression is less than a full frontal defence of enlightenment values and more a feint-and-jab in the culture war. Those who call out the apparent intolerance of free speech on campus very often do so with a reactionary tone that wins no converts.

There is certainly pushback to the idea that students nowadays are particularly hostile to free speech. Writing about the American case for the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner asks ‘Could Everyone Please Stop Freaking Out About College Students Please’ and debunks some of the surveys that suggest students are becoming more intolerant. He concludes by pointing out that the scolds who complain that today’s students are ‘snowflakes’ themselves rely on arguments that are no more than feelings, assumptions and prejudice.

Responding to Johnson’s speech in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny also suggests that “if anyone is being too sensitive here, it is the old guard”. She goes further and declares that the idea that students are at all anti-free speech is a complete myth.

The most important thing to remember about this virulent epidemic of student censorship is that it doesn’t exist. It’s made-up. In the past few years the bloviating, hand-wringing articles and books and whining interventions about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” have far, far outnumbered the actual use of these fairly moderate tactics on campus. It’s a right-wing fantasy. People desperately want it to be true that young people today can’t cope with new ideas, because otherwise they’d have to take the new ideas these silly kids have about social justice seriously.

I disagree with Laurie when she compares No Platform to simply being spoken back to. I think there are examples of genuine debate and ideas being shut down because one side is so confident that they are correct that they feel equally confident in declaring any engagement with the other side to be an endorsement of bigotry. This is happens in the debate between transsexual activists and radical feminists; and it happens on Israel-Palestine. When students unions, or campus pressure groups use the power and influence they have to shut down an event or force the cancellation of a speaker, that is indeed a form of censorship.

It is (importantly) not legal, government censorship, which many students think lets them off the hook. But my view is that it is nevertheless against the spirit of freedom of expression, in which we should welcome the airing of incorrect and unpalatable views, because they make our own opinions stronger and less dogmatic.

Having said that, Laurie is absolutely correct to identify the panic around students and free speech is something that the Right are keen to amplify.

Gaby Hinsliff also took on the issue in her Guardian column this week. She made the highly pertinent point that free speech is not a right that is granted equally to all, and that ‘the biggest experiment in untrammelled free speech in history’ has led to the rise of a pretty horrendous form of far right politics. Meanwhile the right to freedom of expression is not granted equally: women, LGBTQ people and ethnic minorities all find themselves bullied off the social media platforms that were supposed to be for everyone.

If we want students to crawl out of their safe spaces, their elders must think rather harder about what made them feel so unsafe in the first place.

This speaks to the anxieties I tried to articulate in my Leeds Beckett lecture. I ended that speech with a crucial point about counter-extremism:

And the government expects your university lecturers to be complicit in this squeeze on thought. If anything negates the idea that a university is a ‘safe space’, it’s the idea that your lecturer is legally compelled to report you to the police if they see or hear anything that they think is suspicious.

Hinsliff also mentioned this in her column:

How does all this mesh with a Prevent anti-terrorist strategy requiring universities to keep out extremist speakers? Perhaps there will be a banned list for Prevent, and another list of those whom students are banned from banning.

For a good summary of what a fundamental issue this is, I recommend this report of a seminar speech by Lord Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions and now Warden of Warham College. The PREVENT strategy does compel universities to suppress radical yet non-violent speech. And of course, the penalties that a government can impose on students who do engage in radical speech are far greater than the embarrassment and inconvenience of No Platforming. PREVENT must therefore be considered the greater chill on freedom of expression than a few well-meaning students who overreach their power over the Junior Common Room.

The Government, unable to come up with a working definition of what kind of non-violent extremism it actually wants to ban, has thrown the issue to an Extremism Commission (though it does not yet have a chairperson). If Jo Johnson MP is so keen to protect free speech at universities, then I hope he tells that commission that  universities should not be asked to police the speech of their students, in the name of counter-extremism.

4 thoughts on “So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission”

  1. For me the critical distinction needs to be made between those who say things that we dislike or find offensive (which may objectively be true), and those who advocate actually doing physical harm to others.

    Saying you despise X/Y/Z is different to advocating people to actively harm X/Y/Z. Some may claim that saying unpleasant or offensive things about X/Y/Z, but stopping short of may encourage or justify some other person to act against X/Y/Z, I’m unconvinced by this. I find it unlikely that people who set out to harm others wouldn’t have done it if they’d have been shielded from a particular set of unpleasant or offensive views.

    Unless there is a likelihood of physical harm being advocated, then No Platforming is an indication of intellectual and emotional cowardice.

    1. Agreed, M. But if you listen carefully to people who are in favour of No Platform, they do not say that people should be denied a platform because they are offensive, but because those people cause harm with their words.

      Either, their words inspire others to go out and bully, marginalise, discriminate, attack and even kill (for e.g) ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ people.

      Or, the words cause psychological damage to the targeted minority, which (in aggregate) lead to a diminished sense of well-being.

      Why, ask the No Platform advocates, should we draw the line at physical harm?

  2. I agree with the above comment. But where does saying supportive or approving comments about an organisation that advocates violence fit into this ?

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