I was on BBC Radio London this morning, talking to presenter Nikki Bedi about free speech. It’s a topic of conversation today because Universities Minister Jo Johnson is about to make a speech in which (apparently) he will suggest that higher education institutions should be fined if they fail to protect freedom of expression. He has taken aim at the practice of no-platform policies before.
You can listen to the discussion on the BBC London website. My contribution is 1 hour and 17 minutes into the show, at about 8:20AM.During the discussion, I explained that we do not always need laws of censorship to combat offensive speech. I invoked John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’ and borrowed the idea of ‘imminent harm’ from First Amendment jurisprudence to explain when authorities should step in to put a stop to certain kinds of expression.
I also suggested that universities, which are supposed to be the cutting edge of human thought, should be the place where bad ideas are debunked.
One point that I did mention briefly, but would like to have expanded on, is the slightly contradictory nature of what Mr Johnson is proposing. As well as suggesting that universities face fines for ‘no platforming’ he also wants to stamp out antisemitism and other forms of racism. But he seems to forget that the first people to be no platformed at students unions are… the antisemites and the racists! It will be interesting to see what proposals he puts forward to combat hate and prejudice that also maintain strong free speech protections.
Mr Johnson must also remember that the Government itself operates laws and promotes policies that chill free speech. We have an extremely intrusive surveillance law in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, and the Government’s most recent proposals on counter-extremism included a new set of civil orders that would have censored non-violent radical speech. The PREVENT strategy is often criticised for chilling legitimate discussion and study of radicalisation.
If Mr Johnson has a genuine commitment to free speech then it is not enough to moan about students. He should to say something about the government’s role in chilling free speech, too.