Jo Johnson And Free Speech In British Universities

On Boxing Day Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, lauded the liberal tradition that had turned the modern university into the ‘quintessential liberal institution’ a place where ‘free and rigorous inquiry’ reign. However, he also issued a warning, pointing to the ‘countervailing forces of censorship’ which he claims are stifling free debate in British and American universities. Specifically, Johnson attacked ‘the proliferation of safe spaces, [and] the rise of no-platforming’ which he claims are ‘undermining the principle of free speech in our universities.’

While the government’s belated interest in ‘liberty and . . . tolerance’ is to be applauded, it is worth thinking critically about Johnson’s characterisation of university culture. First, safe spaces are not created by universities, nor are they part of formal university policy. Rather, they are set up by student groups. Therefore, they place no limit on what is taught as part of the university curriculum. Similarly, student groups, rather than universities, engage in no-platforming. Student societies have long had the freedom to invite speakers of their choosing, and have no duty to provide platforms for speakers with views antithetical to the interests of their members. Universities should be places of rigorous debate, at the same time student societies have every right to organise themselves as they see fit, this includes the right to rescind invitations, and to establish safe spaces for their members.

Second, Johnson is wrong to call student societies ‘forces of censorship.’ Student societies have neither the power to stop, nor the right to punish people for expressing their views. Following controversy over Peter Tatchell’s invitation to speak at Canterbury Christ Church University, Tatchell published an essay in the Independent, and gave a series of interviews regarding his views, and his response to Fran Cowling, the NUS’s LGBT representative, who refused to share a platform with him. Much the same is true of Germaine Greer, whose lecture at Cardiff also caused controversy. In each case, students did not dispute their right to speak, they merely objected to Tatchell, Greer and Bellos speaking in a specific context.

Third, while Johnson implies that no-platforming is endemic, it is actually very rare. Indeed, neither Tatchell nor Greer were actually no-platformed. Despite claims in the right-wing press that Tatchell’s invitation to speak was never rescinded. In fact, his talk went ahead as planned. Similarly, despite press reports to the contrary, Greer delivered her planned lecture at Cardiff University. The lecture was rescheduled, and the University issued a statement against ‘discriminatory comments of any kind’, but Greer delivered her lecture.

Concerns about free speech were re-ignited in late December in a Daily Mail piece on Reverend Canon Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christ Church, Oxford. Prof Biggar has been criticised on Twitter, and by colleagues at Oxford for his essay ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’ published in the Times at the end of December. The Daily Mail linked Prof Biggar to no-platforming and safe spaces, again arguing that British universities have become places where left-wing orthodoxies go unchallenged. Again, this is a misrepresentation of the case. Prof Biggar’s views on Britain’s imperialist past are well known. Indeed, rather than being no-platformed, he was invited to speak in a public debate on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the Oxford Union in January 2016. Certainly, there has been a great deal of criticism of Prof Biggar’s views on Twitter, but this is evidence that rigorous debate is alive and well, not an indication that free speech is under threat.

There are real threats to freedom of speech and freedom to research in universities, but they come from the government, not from student groups. The Prevent Strategy, for example, places a duty on academics to monitor the views expressed by students, and a duty on Universities to monitor lecturers and guest speakers, and in certain cases liaise with the police and security services. Rather than criticising ‘safe spaces’ the Prevent Strategy justifies the monitoring of debate on campus on the basis that ‘universities and colleges also have a legal and moral obligation to staff and students to ensure that the place of work and study is a tolerant, welcoming and safe environment.’ The original guidance published to help academics understand their duties, stated that they should be on the look out for students who were interested in animal rights, Irish Republicanism and environmental issues as they were warning signs that students were becoming radicalised. Whilst this advice has been revised, many institutions responsible for enforcing or advising academic institutions on the Prevent Strategy retain warnings on the danger of student interest in animal rights, Irish Republicanism and environmental issues in their guidance.

The current government has also limited academic freedom to research, by withdrawing documents declassified by the Blair and Brown governments. Government files relating to the Falklands Conflict, the troubles in Northern Ireland, and atrocities committed under British Imperial rule were withdrawn from the National Archives by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition beginning in 2011, and have subsequently been lost. Source material of this kind is essential to academic research, and to informed debate over Britain’s imperial legacy.

Johnson is right that universities should be places of rigorous and free debate, and he is right that intellectual freedom in Britain’s universities is under threat. However, student groups who legitimately protest against racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic speakers are not threats to free speech. Indeed, criticising points of view, boycotting speakers, refusing to share platforms, even no-platforming are part of the public discourse. After all, freedom of debate must include the right to refuse to dignify prejudice with a response or a platform. The real threat to the freedom of speech comes not from politically engaged students, but from the government which, in the interest of safety, has taken new powers to police debate on campus.