Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

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.
Here are four areas where confusion still persists:

No Platform, or Not No Platform?

The first confusion is over the very definition of No Platform. In its current formulation, the NUS’s No Platform policy entails denying fascists and racists an opportunity to speak at events organised by the NUS, and forbidding NUS officials and trustees from sharing platforms with racists.
By this measure, many of the controversies of recent months are not accurately described as No Platform, even if news reports label them as such:

  • When NUS LGBT officer, Fran Cowling, refused to speak alongside the campaigner Peter Tatchell, it was her personal choice and not official NUS No Platform policy. Tatchell never claimed he had been No Platformed, but the Guardian news report on the spat appended that label.
  • When Maryam Namazie spoke to the Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society at Goldsmiths College in December 2015, she was heckled by men (apparently from the Islamic Society) who disagreed with her views. Nevertheless, she was able to finish the event. This is not No Platform either.
  • Nor was comedian Kate Smurthwaite No Platformed. Her planned event at Goldsmiths College was cancelled for reasons that had more to do with poor ticket sales than the planned protest by members of the Feminist Society.
  • Finally, contrary to reports, HOPE not hate chief executive, Nick Lowles, has not been No Platformed by the NUS. It is true that a few people from the NUS Black Students campaign opposed the invitation for Lowles to speak at an event, but he was never disinvited and there is no official NUS No Platform policy against him.

None of this excuses the hostile approach to free debate displayed by those opposed to Tatchell, Namzie, Smurthwaite or Lowles. But when the media and free speech campaigners use the phrase ‘No Platform’ as a short-hand for more complex controversies, their arguments lose credibility with those on the other side of the debate. And when the list of organisations on the actual NUS No Platform policy is so short, it is reasonable to ask whether the NUS is to blame for the myriad speaker policies being implemented by the many students’ unions all over the UK.

Are universities free speech zones?

Another point of contention is whether or not universities are public spaces. If they are, then surely the principles of freedom of expression must not only be respected, but promoted.
Universities receive tax-payers money from Government, and also have a legal duty to protect freedom of speech. Section 43 of the Education (No.2) Act 1986 says that universities must ‘ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’ These are strong points in favour of the idea that universities should operate as free speech zones.
But does this apply to students’ unions? They tend to be separate legal entities: member associations, not-for-profit companies or charities, depending on the university. They are distinct corporate bodies from the educational establishment itself, even if they are woven into the fabric of a university that might grant them resources and premises. Crucially, most students’ unions are run by elected officers and their policies are set by votes at a meeting. Why can’t students collectively decide on rules of conduct for their private space?
If students’ unions are more like private spaces, then the moral calculus changes profoundly. No-one expects us to tolerate offensive and distressing speech in our own homes, and it would be strange if we put those obligations onto those operating other kinds of private space.
In November 2015, a video recording of an open-air debate at Yale University went viral. “It’s your job to create a space of comfort and home” yelled one student at Professor Nicholas Christakis, who had come into the quad to address student concerns. Although the footage is from the USA, I think the discussion is emblematic of the tension between these two competing conceptions of a university that we experience here in the UK.
When I discussed this with students at University College London in March, they were adamant that the increase in the fees charged by British universities was partly responsible for students’ attitudes to universities. If students are in effect customers who are paying for accommodation and education, then they naturally conceive of these establishments as private spaces, where it would be morally unremarkable to arrange things for the comfort of those studying.
It’s noteworthy that many of the free speech advocates who lament the censorious attitude of current students are middle-aged journalists and lecturers who (if they were living in the UK) must have benefitted from free tuition at universities, and who therefore take it as axiomatic that universities are public spaces and not private services. Free speech campaigners need to realise that the current generation of students do not have the same presumption.
Moreover, history does not support the myth of universities as places of unfettered free speech. For centuries, only a very particular kind of person — rich, white, male religious conformists — had access. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century (relatively recently in terms of the long history of our university system) that access to higher education was significantly expanded beyond that privileged group. The Edinburgh Seven, the first women undergraduates in Britain, began their studies in 1869, and the Universities Test Act 1871 ensured unhindered university access for Catholics. And when it comes to working class and ethnic minority access, admissions to universities are still lower than they should be.
There are very good reasons why universities, as the place where ideas develop (the ‘brain of society’ as York Student PEN co-chairs Madeleine Stone and Stefan Kielbasiewicz recently put it) should operate as de facto public squares, open to any person and to any idea. But these are arguments that must be made afresh.

Are ‘safe spaces’ really the problem?

No article about free speech at universities is complete without a discussion of ‘safe spaces’, an innovation blamed for the coddling of students and the rise in campus censorship.
This is an area of debate that particularly suffers from a poor understanding of the concept. People on both sides of the argument adopt the same warped definition of the term, which they use to pursue their own agenda.
Used correctly, ‘safe space’ is a term for a place where those who usually face discrimination in society can avoid the marginalisation that they usually face. This may involve organising events to which only certain people (women, or transgender students, for example) are invited, or where certain modes of discussion are avoided. Conceived as such, safe spaces are the exercise of our right to freedom of association. People are entitled to seek out communities where they are not subject to the day-to-day prejudice that they typically experience. Spending time in such a place (A Room Of One’s Own, even) may be precisely what is needed for full freedom of expression to flourish. In themselves, safe spaces are not unreasonable.
Unfortunately, it is a concept that can be stretched to absurdity when people seek to apply it across a large and diverse institution. ‘The university should be a safe space for all our students’ said the Goldsmiths Islamic Society, commenting on its members’ heckling of Maryam Namazie in a way that made her feel distinctly unsafe. But when it comes to arguments about philosophy and religion, how can the entire university ever be a safe space? A student population of several thousand will include people who profess myriad religions and world-views, many of which are inherently dismissive of, and hostile to each other. It is impossible to prioritise the comfort and sensibilities of one group without infringing on the speech and association rights of others. A safe space policy simply cannot be enforced across an entire university. When they are, censorship is the quick result.
Frustratingly, many of the recent articles that are critical of students take ‘safe space’ to mean exactly this—a campus wide ban on offensive views. ‘Universities don’t need a safe space, they need a Room 101’ writes Julius Wroblewski in Prospect Magazine, April 2016. ‘University should be an intellectual boot camp, not a nursery’. Wroblewski’s comments, and a prior article in Prospect by Frank Furedi, adopt the all-encompassing ‘safe space’ as a straw man that can be used to mock students. This approach dismisses the genuine concerns of marginalised groups, and comes across as highly reactionary.
Again, this is an approach that is unlikely to win converts.
Ironically, the proper use of safe space polices can enhance freedom of expression for everyone. Individuals can explore their own ideas in private without fear of harassment, while competing ideas can go head to head in the communal space. It’s a shame that misconceptions about the term have debased its value.

What is the greatest threat to free speech in the UK?

Reading the same angst-fuelled opinion pieces on this issue, one can be forgiven for thinking that this generation of students are the greatest threat to free speech in the UK. But that is both a generalisation and an exaggeration.
First, the student societies at the centre of these controversies are tiny organisations that claim only a few dozen members. The leaderships of these groups amount to a handful of people. Despite this, their postings on Facebook or Tumblr are amplified on the Internet, and become representative of an entire generation of students in a way that is entirely misleading. Those who seek to defend freedom of expression would do well not to confuse the actions of a few with the opinions of the whole.
In fact, there is plenty of diversity of opinion among British students. The #Right2Debate campaign is student led, and last month, a group of student activists tabled a motion at the NUS LGBT conference to amend and restrict its No Platform policy, arguing it was an ineffective means of combating bigotry. Student PEN groups are active in opposing No Platform and promoting free speech, too.
When someone with controversial views is No Platformed, the censorship only takes the form of the withdrawal of an invitation to speak. This is still a kind of censorship, but the person can at least seek out alternative platforms. They may even reach a wider audience or receive alternative invitations because of the notoriety that a No Platform declaration brings.
Meanwhile, other kinds of curbs on free speech are accompanied by far tougher punishments. University administrations can threaten libel or expulsion when students publish information that portrays the institution in a negative light. In March 2016, the Independent reported that University College London had threatened student Rebecca Pinnington with expulsion, after she shared the administration’s revenue forecasts (documents that were freely accessible on the university intranet). There have been similar threats against student journalists’ discussion of university finances — at Plymouth University and Durham University for, example.
In such cases, the administration or the union can suppress criticism with what amounts to a threat of serious financial loss. But when the Government acts to suppress speech, the consequences can result in criminal proceedings. The Prevent Strategy imposes legal obligations on higher education establishments to monitor students and external speakers for signs of radicalisation and extremism — poorly defined terms that create ambiguity and a chill on free speech. In 2016, the British Government is expected to publish its Extremism Bill that would introduce ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’. These new legal devices would, on a low standard of proof, ban certain people from public speaking on the grounds of ‘extremism’. It is possible that some people will face criminal penalties for non-violent political speech.
With such measures looming, the free speech problem presented by No Platform policies does not look quite so draconian. Portraying those who support such policies as the worst kind of Thought Police is another way in which supporters of free speech squander their chance to persuade.


None of this is to argue that the restrictions on free speech we see at universities should be accepted, or that we should somehow triangulate the issue and make some free speech compromises. I still disagree with No Platform policies, even for racists. I think universities should be de facto free speech zones. I think safe space policies should never be implemented at the university level. And I think that the issue of students censoring other students is an issue to take seriously.
However, it is not enough to simply assert these principles and expect to change the minds of enough students to see a reversal of the policies. Instead, free speech campaigners need to argue clearly and deeply for free speech from first principles, taking nothing for granted.

Photo: You Can’t Shut Me Up by Jennifer Moo on Flickr (Creative Commons)

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