Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech.

Commissioned by and first published on the Free Word Centre blog


In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion and debate on the subject of free speech at universities. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, and the protests over controversial speakers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, have kept the issue in the headlines, and the publication of Sp!ked Magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings seems to have emboldened free speech advocates to push back against campus censorship. A new campaign, Right2Debate, targets the National Union of Students (NUS) and its No Platform policies that prevent controversial speaker events from going ahead.

As a campaigner with English PEN, I support the campaigns to expand free speech at universities. But in recent weeks I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the debate is evolving. Each side talks over the other, and some of the fundamental questions at the heart of the issue remain unresolved. Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech. Continue reading “Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities”

Peter Tatchell’s Surprising Support for the Homophobic Bakers

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the homophobic Bed & Breakfast owners. But Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

Remember the controversy about the ‘gay cake’?  Last year, a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.  A court ruled that the bakers had discriminated against a customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, contrary to equality legislation.  The customer, Gareth Lee, was awared £500 in compensation.

The case will be considered in the Appeal Court this week.  Ahead of the hearing, the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has published a surprising article defending the bakery.  There’s a version on the Guardian comment pages, and a longer version sent to Peter’s mailing list.

I recommend reading the entire article, but the crux of Tatchell’s argument is this:

It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.

The bakery refused to support and propagate the idea of same-sex marriage.  Lee was not refused service because he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.

This is a subtle point but also a persuasive one.  The implications loom large.  Tatchell asks:

Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? … If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience surely means the freedom not to engage in the commerce of distributing ideas that you oppose.

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the Bed & Breakfast owners who refused service to a gay couple—This blog has previously discussed the issues raised by such cases. However, Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

The Medium of Icing

Who would have thought that patrsies are political! Almost 10 years ago, this blog also discussed the Medium of Icing.

The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon

Nevertheless, willfull ignorance and social media illiteracy are with us and it would be nice to have some tools to ease the burden that such antagonism places on our discussions.

I posted this on Medium last week to almost deathly silence.  I thought it would be something people might share but clearly I’ve not built up enough of a network.


One aspect of the Internet that makes me a little melancholy is the fact that so many people have to put the same phrase on their social media bios: “These are my own views and not that of my employer” or variations of that theme.

It’s sad because the Internet was supposed to be a place where people have the freedom to explore new ideas, identities and friendships. Instead, our online discourse is polluted by the anxieties and the obtuse reasoning of the corporate world.

The all-to-common “personal opinions” disclaimer reminds us how our freedom of thought and of personality is curtailed. My heart sinks whenever I read such words, because I know that the person who is writing them is on their guard, insuring themselves against some future misunderstanding or invasion of their work life into their personal space.

And yet we need such disclaimers, because on the Internet there are a remarkable number of people who are happy to conflate the views of an individual with that of the organisations they work for. Continue reading “The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon”

These jihadi brides are fully culpable victims

Three schoolgirls from East London have left the UK to join ISIS, and everyone has an opinion. Some people say they are no better than Jihadi John, and that joining the fighters for Islamic state is tantamount to participating in the beheading of aid workers. they should be considered enemy combatants and we should not care one joy for their safety.

Other people say that these girls are victims: of brainwashing, of a culture that doesn’t value them, or of a society that offers the youth no aspirations. They’re essentially kidnap victims and we should mobilise to secure their safe return.

Here’s an idea: perhaps they’re both? Fully culpable genocide-enablers; and victims.
Continue reading “These jihadi brides are fully culpable victims”

The ritual of condemnation

In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

Continue reading “The ritual of condemnation”

This is how to make human rights a vote winner

The effect of Khan’s argument is that human rights are framed as a crucial protection for everyone, not boutique laws for just a few.

In the past couple of months I have been making notes on the Labour Party’s approach to human rights. Here’s a quote from the conference speech given by my MP, the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan:

What happens when you cut back judicial review? You betray bereaved families, like the Hillsborough campaigners, who can’t challenge terrible decisions.

What’s the outcome of cutting legal aid? The family of Jean Charles De Menezes, the innocent Brazilian man shot at Stockwell tube station would no longer have access to expert lawyers in the future. Nor indeed the Gurkhas or the Lawrence family. It’ll be harder for victims of domestic violence to break away from abusive partners.

Continue reading “This is how to make human rights a vote winner”

Thoughts on Syria

I have yet to post anything on Syria, and what the international response should be to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This omission is mainly because I was away when the House of Commons voted on whether to join in with any military action, and I missed all the debates over the morality of intervention. By the time I began consuming media again after my time in a communications blind spot, the conversation had become about whether David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s political fortunes had been helped or hindered by the parliamentary vote. I was coming to the issue with fresh eyes and ears, and such parochial analysis felt incredibly crass and wholly beside the point.

For the past ten days, there has been much discussion about how our collective democratic experience of the Iraq war in 2003 has affected our political judgements a decade later. Clearly the sense of betrayal that many of us felt back then still remains. The brutal aftermath in Iraq, and our lengthy, corrosive presence in Afghanistan has made everyone wary of more military action in the Middle East. Continue reading “Thoughts on Syria”

Say It To My Face?!

When discussing the media, blogging or twitter we hear a lot about this rule of thumb that says “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face”. I think this is a simplistic cliché.

There are lots of reasons to put in writing something that you would not say directly. What you want to say might be quite long. Or it may require hyperlinks to make sense.

But most importantly: the written word is a leveller. It is an essential tool for those who wish to speak truth to power. Saying something to the face of politicians, clerics, military personnel, corporate CEOs or celebrities is incredibly difficult. First you have to actually meet them… and then negotiate the entourages and your own nervousness in order to confront them and say what you want to say. This is incredibly difficult and would present a huge psychological barrier to criticism, if that were the only way we could express dissent.

We evolved the written word so we could converse with (and critique) other people – transcending space, time and social class. “Say it to someone’s face, or not at all” is a silly principle by which to live.

Deeply Held Views

Listening to the radio over the weekend (Any Questions? I think, or was it Any Answers?) I heard some people described as having “deeply held views” that made them opposed to gay marriage. I have happened across the phrase in relation to the recent bout of Middle East rioting too.

This is an example of language and cliché being used to give weight to certain opinions, over others. When a speaker says that someone has “deeply held views” there is an implication that these opinions are more intractable than the opinion of the average person. The word “deep” suggests that the opinion is somehow buried beneath strata of rock.

But actually, an opinion or a value isn’t like that. It is exists within the malleable, mutable human brain, and therefore susceptible to argument, rhetoric, fact, emotion, and empathy.

Moreover, since we are all equal human beings (in the democratic sense, at least) there is no reason why a person with a “deeply held view” should receive special treatment or consideration. It’s a phrase that, to me, screams special pleading and it’s usually used to describe religious people. The message seems to be, My opinion is better than yours, because it’s older..

This is wrong. An antipathy to women or homosexuals (say) may have been encoded into the religious text or culture mores for centuries, but a person nevertheless chooses to adopt that opinion themselves within their own lifetime. That “deeply held” view is no older or deeper than the most new and liberal of opinions held by their next-door neighbour.

Or perhaps, “deeply held view” is actually code for those opinions that the holder has accepted (for reasons of religion, tradition or patriotism) without making a proper, considered choice? In which case, “deeply held view” is also a euphemism for an unthinking deference to the pronouncements of others (which is, in the end, a form of prejudice). I actually suspect that this is what the politicians and BBC journalists mean when they use the phrase.

Well, enough of that, I say! Let us stop giving undue credence to bad ideas, just because they have a long history. If the best argument you can give for holding an opinion is that it is “deeply held” then it’s not a very good opinion at all, and you should divest yourself of the burden of defending it as soon as possible.

Analogising Science in Political Debate

I would love to see other scientific analogies used in political discourse. In particular, I yearn for an equivalent of dye tracing or radio-active marking when a controversy flares.

According to Sunny Hundal’s new web service Rippla, Joseph Harker’s Guardian article, about racism and the demonisation of communities, was the most shared article in the UK yesterday.

And quite right too.  It’s a truly sublime piece of analysis, comparing recent news sources, real demographic data, and an apt turn of phrase, to analyse the differing media coverage given to the same crimes, when committed by different perpetrators.  When Muslims are convicted of sex crimes, the stories receive much more attention than when generic white Englishmen are found to have done the same deed.  Worse, the actions of wayward Muslims are deemed to be somehow inspired by their culture.  This same extrapolation never happens for white people.

This article feels like the definitive statement on the issue of how the media treats minorities.  It raises its head in various guises all the time.  Like many people, I have been mulling it for years.  Back in 2003, when I was part of The LIP Magazine‘s editorial team, we published ‘Do You Belong To A Community?‘ by Aisha Phoenix which begins with a bite: “Whenever the media describes someone as coming from a ‘community’, you know they are not white.” Almost a decade later, and I see the same anxieties in this comment from the novelist Kamila Shamsie to the columnist David Aaronovich: “Could we have a moratorium on the phrase ‘Muslim leader’ please?”

Much rhetoric in politics is of a kind where the speaker (or writer) claims that his or her special interest group are being treated unfairly, and if they were of a different skin colour or religion (or whatever) they would be treated better.  This is often an incorrect assumption, which betrays a lack of understanding of the society in which we live.

Harker makes precisely this kind of argument in his article, too.  However, instead of making a vague assumption, the nature of the issue means he does have the ‘data’ to back up the rhetoric, and the article becomes akin to a scientific experiment.  Since the two prosecutions he examines are so similar, it is almost as if one is the control group for the other, in one of those attitude surveys invented by psychologists: Keep the details similar but change the ethnicity of the person, and see how attitudes change.

I would love to see other scientific analogies used in political discourse.  In particular, I yearn for an equivalent of dye tracing or radio-active marking when a controversy flares.  This would be very useful during some of the free speech arguments I follow, when some kind of institution has to decide whether to support or withdraw an offensive text, event or artwork.  It would be great to trace the decision-making process in such a way as to perceive the point where the support for the principle of free speech breaks down.  That would help us identify where these values should be reinforced.  Unfortunately, I cannot quite imagine how one might set the ‘tracer’ off… short of manufacturing an argument.  So, if Anjem Choudary is reading this, perhaps he would give me advanced warning of his next stunt?  Then I can track the reactions he provokes with academic precision.