“Students will be banned from refusing speakers a platform at their universities” declared the Times, ahead of a summit where Universities Minister Sam Gyimah was tipped to announce a new ‘ban’ on No Platform policies at universities.
It’s a great story. Except it didn’t happen.
Having attended the event, it was made clear to myself, and all of the other representatives from across the Higher Education sector, that it will be institutions and independent student unions, not government, who will remain largely responsible for speakers on campus. No new policy or legislation has been announced.
Unfortunately, although somewhat predictably enough, the truth is not sufficient to stem yet another round of manufactured outrage about creeping censorship, campus zealots and sinister snowflakes. If you were to believe what has become a sadly familiar tale, the young of this country are simultaneously brittle and unyielding. Fickle but obstinate. Feckless yet intransigent.
If this sounds a little confusing, or even illogical, then good - perhaps you are starting to understand the rules of this game. For this a debate in which confusion reigns supreme: up is down, or is down really up?
Free association becomes exclusion, protecting the most vulnerable entails censorship, defending free expression can only mean its suppression.
The idea that one could ‘ban’ no-platform policies in the first place is itself a mind-bending proposition. This suggests student groups and institutions might be forced to invite particular speakers to their own events, rather than the ones that they themselves deem to be either appropriate or relevant. Who gets to decide if event requires a particular speaker? Who gets to decide if a speaker is ‘suitable’? Or to put it bluntly, how many representatives from the Conservative Party does the knitting society need to invite to its monthly wine and cheese night?
Most telling was the Minister’s own contribution, or the time he was “almost censored on campus”. What I find so deeply fascinating about this piece, other than the fact that it doesn’t actually present any evidence of censorship, is that it appears to be an account of navigating the loopholes that institutions are legally obliged to jump through. That is, either Health or Safety regulations, or other legislation introduced by previous Conservative-led governments. If the minister is looking to identify the source of the ‘chilling effect’ he cites, he need look no further than the myriad of competing and conflicting legal obligations that universities are forced to contend with.
Of course, once you read between the lines reality starts to seep in. It is worth repeating, as I find myself compelled to do ad nauseam, that a report from ChangeSU found that there hasn’t been a single instance of student censorship in the last five years. Just as the Minister mistakes bureaucracy for conspiracy, the recent report by the Joint Committee for Human Rights (JCHR) found that there are at times a misunderstanding of no platform/ safe spaces – crucially, not inviting a speaker, withdrawing an invitation to an external speaker, and not speaking at an event are not examples of censorship.
The very same report describes the NUS No-Platform list as “generally uncontentious” – containing only six organisations that are, for the most part, already proscribed by the Government.
In reality, rather than a pernicious attempt to curtail free speech – our institutions and students’ unions are forced to juggle several overlapping and sometimes contradictory duties, including but not limited to the 1986 Education Act, the 1994 Education Act, and Charity. The right to free speech must also always be, rightly so, balanced alongside the duty of care to protect students from harm. This is before you even consider the mammoth in the room, the Prevent legislation – undoubtedly the single most illiberal duty placed upon universities in years, which as JCHR report notes, has had a singularly greater chilling effect on free speech (just ask any Muslim student) than if all the Mexican hats were to be banned. This the contradiction which strikes right of the heart of this utterly muddled debate, and one that will not be so easily resolved.
We have agreed to contribute to the creation of new guidance - firstly to provide much needed clarity for universities, but also to ensure that any obligations to free speech are balanced with an institution’s responsibility to keep their students’ safe from harm. Of course, the real test of the minister’s commitment to free speech will be if he is willing to call an independent review of Prevent as part of this process - as was called for in the JCHR report.
If not, then it is students’ and NUS who will continue to call for an end to the insidious culture of censorship engendered by the Prevent duty. Perhaps in this upside down world, then we students are the real defenders of free speech, after all?
Amatey Doku is the NUS Vice President, Higher Education