The UK's "Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion"
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
There is a certain irony that despite all societal preaching of tolerance, many people today seem to have forgotten how to tolerate opposing ideas. Through the rise of methods like cancel culture and no-platforming, individuals (most notably Jordan Peterson and J. K. Rowling) and companies (like Starbucks) have been condemned for not supporting Western-tolerant ideals. While it is the prerogative of people whether they support or condemn the views of a certain individual or organisation, a worrying factor is that the methods used to oppose any non-mainstream views are specifically designed to silence the speaker, rather than challenging their views by debating them. This has negative repercussions on public discourse, to the extent where UK public intellectual figures like Toby Young and Douglas Murray have felt the need to establish a Free Speech Union which looks to protect citizens’ right to speech.
This lack of space for the debate of ideas is something which has been taken seriously by the United Kingdom Government. In response to this "chilling effect", the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, presented his "landmark" proposal in February 2021 in order to strengthen the commitment to freedom of expression within HEP (Higher Education Providers).
In the proposal, he claims that HEPs have the significant status of “being a space where views may be freely expressed and debated”, and hence the fact that a large proportion of students are self-censoring is highly problematic. Furthermore, this proposal cites reports that have found between 40-60 percent of students with right-leaning or conservative views and between 20-25 percent of students with left-leaning or liberal views have felt the need to self-censor on campus.
While these impacts have been felt more by right-leaning students, the problem is not with the views that the mainstream narrative is purporting but rooted more deeply in the growing culture that discourages students from engaging in discussions of ideas. An important question to consider is how HEPs (or society in general) should balance freedom of expression with rejecting intolerance. Nevertheless, it is clear (and has been made emphasised by the Secretary of State) that none of the solutions should rest upon the censorship of debate. Debating ideas is a pillar of intellectual and cultural progress and, as stated in the Secretary of State’s proposal, all students and staff “should feel safe to challenge conventional wisdom by putting forward and discussing ideas that may be controversial, unpalatable or even deeply offensive". Without such an ethos, past societal norms that have promoted racism, sexism and homophobia would never have been challenged in previous centuries.
This bill looks to build on the already existing framework that protects the right to free speech and academic freedom by filling in the gaps, namely that there is no clear means of enforcement for breaches of freedom of speech and that current law does not extend to Student Unions. The main piece of the new bill is to create a "Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion", with the power to investigate and recommend redress for any infringements of free speech on campus. Under this feature, universities found to breach the right to freedom of speech or academic freedom will be subject to sanctions. Furthermore, students will also be able to seek legal protection from any unlawful infringements on their free speech.
HEPs have pushed back against this bill. They deny that this is a growing problem on campuses, and representatives assert that a Free Speech Champion will prove more detrimental to the right to freedom of expression and academic freedom within Higher Education Institutes. Jo Grady, Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), has stated that the real threat to freedom of expression does not come from “so-called cancel culture, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus". This has been reinforced by Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice-President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students, who claimed, "There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and Students' Unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year”. Yet these claims are perhaps undermined by the large proportion of students (from both sides of the political spectrum) who feel the need to self-censor.
The full implications of this bill are still unclear for the government is still to appoint a Free Speech Champion and is yet to define the scope of the role. However, the fact that the government is recognising a problem with the right to free expression within HEPs should be setting off warning bells within every person who believes in a democratic society. HEPs must teach and encourage students to engage in debate and not to shut these debates down by "cancelling them" or denying them a platform.