There really is no ‘free speech’ campus crisis

Alice Thwaite

Alice Thwaite says the right to free expression does not include the right to have one’s views amplified and institutionally endorsed

21 November 2018 08:26

I am tired of the so-called ‘debate’ about no-platforming at university campuses; of the vilification of the ‘snowflake’ generation; and of the constant confusion of free-speech with amplification of speech. But, tired or not, this debate has never been noisier.

In recent weeks, for instance, there has been the row over Steve Bannon’s appearance at the Oxford Union. There has been the controversy over the no-platforming of Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans at King’s College, London, after she questioned certain policies of transgender organisations on the BBC’s Moral Maze. Earlier this month, the broadcaster Jenni Murray pulled out of an Oxford History Society event after LGBTQ+ activists tried to force its cancellation over her alleged transphobia.

But let’s put this flurry of stories in perspective: the national conversation about who has the right to speak to relatively small audiences at university unions and societies has been going on for a few years now. And, frankly, I think it’s high time the conversation moved on.

If you’re bored of this tired argument as well, and you’re interested in the distinction between restraining hateful rhetoric and protecting free speech – well, do read on. My personal hope is that society will stop asserting that objectionable speakers have an impregnable right to a podium as the price we must pay for our commitment to free expression. I also hope that we can lay to rest the myth that there is ‘no-free speech on campus’ or that there is a ‘culture of conformity’ at universities.

First off, let’s tackle the issue of protest and dissent. Citizens protest because they don’t like the status quo, or because they fear something in prospect. The huge ‘People’s Vote’ march was one such instance of protest, as was the comparatively small ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ march. Both were exercises of civil liberty that would not have been possible without the robust culture of free speech we enjoy in the UK. But marches are not the only forms of dissent. We can also boycott events, lobby to change agendas and give money to those who might act on our behalf.

It is natural to feel uncomfortable if your own views are the subject of protest. You might even be deterred from continuing down your original and preferred path. Psychologically, we like to feel accepted by society. It takes a very brave person to speak out against a large crowd. So when faced by protesters, a protestee might feel that freedom is being curtailed – and to a certain extent – it is. But is an unwarranted intellectual jump to conclude that the overall context does not observe the claims of liberty. They, too, after all, retain the freedom to stand up to the protest. No reasonable person would say that there is an inalienable right not to be opposed, within the bounds of the law.

Having said this, let’s take a look at free-speech and protest at universities. ‘Universities are supposed to be places of intellectual challenge; where a range of viewpoints can be openly presented and discussed,’ says political professor Matthew Flinders in his BBC programme University Unchallenged. Flinders’ idea is uncontroversial enough. Students should be tested and challenged intellectually: the campus should indeed be a mind gym.

My point is that embracing this principle should not translate automatically into extending an invitation to the leader of the extremist and racist German AfD to speak at a university union. Again, the crucial distinction – which is all too rarely drawn – is between free speech, on the one hand, and the amplification of speech, on the other. In the digital era, just about any viewpoint can be accessed online. So it is not as though no-platforming policies deny students the opportunity to consider particular ideas if they are so minded. The real argument is more nuanced.

There is no free-speech crisis on our campuses – only an intellectual laziness that leads to panic about a problem that simply does not exist.

In universities, there is also an important but unacknowledged difference between being invited to speak at a small departmental conference, and to a large general audience, like a union or one of the bigger campus societies. In my experience, departmental events are attended by the more senior members of colleges; professors, post-doctoral researchers and PhD students.

It is here that great and pertinent questions are asked, and a range of ideas are presented and questioned. These are the places where research themes are pursued, and the discipline moves forward. I’ve watched great professors be torn down intellectually and minor academics lionised in these debating arenas. They are also fairly public: I’ve had access to such forums as a non-university member, a graduate and an undergraduate.

On the other hand, I’ve rarely experienced this sort of rigorous and constructive discourse at university unions. These societies are generally run by undergraduates, who have absolutely no influence over the fortunes of their invited speakers. Let us say that students tear holes in Steve Bannon’s arguments. That is, for him, the end of the matter (as it might not be in a serious academic environment). The gig over, he moves on to the next booking and the next camera crew.

Let me be blunt: there is little benefit in offering a union platform to someone whose opinions you and your peers find repellent. You won’t change a thing by letting them repeat those views. But there is a potentially huge upside for the person coming to speak.

Universities bestow credibility. To be given a platform at a university union cements a person’s reputation as an expert or a public figure who deserves to be heeded by civilised people. It signals to the rest of the world that your work should be taken seriously.

By definition, controversial speakers attract hundreds of attendees – so systematic and incisive cross-examination is usually very difficult. The whole thing usually degenerates into mere spectacle: the argument is not advanced in any meaningful sense. More heat than light is generated. In most cases, an honest audit will conclude that the only real consequences has been the amplification of the extremist’s voice.

So I completely understand that some students may not want to see particularly ideas being actively promoted at their universities. Don’t forget that a large chunk  –  44 per cent – of university funds come from student tuition fees, rather than the public purse: why should those who pay for their education subsidise campus events that amplify views they find abhorrent?

I acknowledge the subtlety of this problem. I don’t pretend to have resolved it comprehensively. But I am certain that the fixation with free-speech absolutism is an intellectual cul-de-sac from which we need to escape.

To protest an ideology is not an abstract exercise: it often involves making those who espouse the ideology feel uncomfortable. It is frequently legitimate – necessary, even – to let them know them that you believe their point of view is so disgusting that they are not welcome in a particular space. Perspective is essential: denying a particular person the right to a specific platform is not necessarily the same as silencing them. It is a way of telling them that their opinions do not merit amplification.

Speech takes many forms – protest being one of the most important. The struggle for diversity and the defence of fundamental decencies are signs of democratic strength not symptoms of fearful censorship. We need to re-frame this debate and take it forward to fresh terrain. Students are non-violently engaging with the ideas of others, and openly challenging those beliefs in the public arena. There is no free-speech crisis on our campuses – only an intellectual laziness that leads to panic about a problem that simply does not exist.