Free speech instruction is a needless endorsement of the media’s culture wars

Originally published on

Universities told they must protect freedom of speech” says the headline in today’s Times.

Keen followers of the HE culture wars might have been surprised to read the Times’ take on Jo Johnson’s letter to UUK calling on universities to be responsible for freedom of speech mainly because universities have been required to “protect freedom of speech” since legislation was passed requiring them to do so when Johnson was fifteen.

“It’s a legal duty” notes the Times, to “ensure as far as practicable that freedom of speech is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers”. All university premises should not be “denied to any individual or body on any grounds connected with their beliefs or views, policy or objective”. He reminds them “it is important to note that the duty extends to both the premises of the university and premises occupied by the students’ unions, even when they are not part of the university premises.”

On the face of it this looks not dissimilar to Johnson’s letter to UUK on anti-Semitism last month; a “public reminder” to universities of their existing legal duties that preserve the prized autonomy of the HE sector while looking tough for his backbenchers in the papers. He reminds vice chancellors that freedom of speech codes of practice should not be allowed to “gather dust”- but having had to review their wording in light of Prevent legislation over the past few years, it’s monumentally unlikely that any vice chancellor or registrar in the UK is not already acutely aware of the legal duty.

Packaged into the piece in the Times is the usual collection of nonsensical culture wars tropes: students are the ‘victims’ of censorship; Germaine Greer; vicars and tarts parties; and the outlawing of the phrase ‘mankind’. “94 per cent of campuses have some restrictions on freedom of expression” it repeats, apparently not concerned that according to the pitiful ‘research’ it references, 6% of universities would appear to think it’s OK to sexually harass people in blackface whilst inciting terrorism.

Act, or we’ll regulate he warns. “[The government] could require providers that are subject to a public interest governance condition to include a principle about freedom of speech principles in their governance documents”. Strong stuff.

Of course, there is no prospect that either the 1986 Education Act or the current Bill’s public interest governance condition could end up stopping students’ unions from deciding not to stock The Sun or resolving to ban groping in their nightclub. There’s also no prospect of a change to charity law, where there’s a countervailing duty on students’ unions and universities to manage the risks associated with external speakers.

There is, as ever, no mention of the fact that it’s remarkably hard to find real evidence of speakers being actually banned anywhere. And there’s no mention at all of the expectation that universities are expected to heavily restrict the freedom of speech of anyone that’s Muslim and wants to question western values.

The prospect of the Higher Education and Research Bill’s “public interest governance condition” being souped up in this area is as intriguing as it is dispiriting. Johnson has already argued that the new condition on governing bodies shouldn’t be used to do innocuous things like cause governing bodies to respond to student concerns, allow proper scrutiny of sky high executive pay, or have students in membership of governing bodies – in order to protect “autonomy”.

Yet when it comes to a set of duties that universities have been actively wrestling with since he was fifteen, the sword of regulation is dangled over the head so the minister can look tough on the eve of the third reading in the Lords.

It’s perfectly possible to see the Johnson letter as a purely political move; a not-so-dead-cat on the table to convince Lords that the NSS doesn’t, in fact, lead to student demands for safe spaces being acquiesced to unthinkingly. But he should be careful what he wishes for.

Back in the mid-eighties, much of the outrage over freedom of speech came from student protests about pro-apartheid backbenchers. In the 90s, it was students that were banning the vile anti-seminism of Hizb Ut Tahrir, long before Prevent came on the scene. In the 00s students’ unions were giving “Zero Tolerance” to sexual harassment long before UUKs taskforce ambled round to it. And I’m pretty confident that in 20 years we’ll look back on the current era and wonder why on earth we were worried that students were debating and then outlawing transphobia, or bullying, or rich white people dressing up as poor black people.


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