Campus free speech under fire in British university shake-up

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  1. 'Universities should be places that open minds, not close them'
  2. 'Right to free speech not right to platform'
  3. Critics call new regulator 'Office for State Control'
  4. Battleground in the UK matches US free speech row

Michela Wrong’s ears twitched when she realized she was being investigated by the Bristol University students’ union before giving a talk there last November. The journalist and author, an Africa expert, was subjected to a background check that all Bristol speakers face to see if she fit their “safe space” policy, she says. Even her social media profiles were scrutinized. Wrong cancelled the talk in a “flash of anger.”

“This is what you call ‘being vetted,'” says Wrong, who says she encountered censorship during six years working in Africa. “The onus is all wrong, because if you are a writer or journalist like me you get asked to talk quite a lot at universities,” she says. The possibility of censorship therefore struck her as “bizarre.”

Universities once had the reputation of havens of free speech, an open space of contrasting ideas and debate resulting in a fusion of contemporary thoughts. Students, from the days of the 1968 rebellions, were supposed to represent challenges to convention. But recently tables are turning as student groups on both sides of the Atlantic seek to stop expression of ideas they find distasteful.

In both the UK and the United States, universities are becoming battlegrounds for free speech as students go head-to-head with university administration and visitors over political correctness and intellectual open-mindedness. Clashes have ranged from a campaign to tear down a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford to protests against visits from contrarian speakers on U.S. campuses. But decisions on who should be allowed to speak to students are the latest manifestation of student power. The National Union of Students (NUS) has a “hit list” of six proscribed organizations from which no representative will be accepted in any students’ unions associated with it.


Journalist and author Michela Wrong turned down the Bristol University International Affairs Society after having her social media profiles “vetted.” Photo by: Kate Stanworth, used courtesy of Michela Wrong

so we can move this down and make it less important, as per PB view. At the start of April, a new Office for Students starts operating in the UK, partly charged with upholding freedom of speech on campus. On the board, government-appointed individuals from Britain’s education elite will hold universities to account over a range of issues, while working with the NUS and other students to calm and control the sector that is a hot topic in Britain.

Tuition fees are regularly a political battleground, and the student population is often labelled “Generation Snowflake” by commentators and the media, a caricature of today’s youth as being easily offended and less resilient than previous generations. Lecturers’ remuneration is also causing drama: academics from 65 institutions are taking strike action in a fight over proposed cuts to pension schemes in a move that has heavily disrupted top universities (Financial Times).

Yet the OfS says it will put students first. This sounds like a change from the current climate in which universities can feel more like businesses than schools, and are increasingly bureaucratic. British students now have to pay for university education with yearly bills of up to £9,250 a year, becoming one of the most tense points of concern for British voters. Tapping into this is one of the authority’s key aims, that students get value for money.

The OfS website says it will make going to university more fulfilling and worthwhile by ensuring students have access to quality education, that their interests are protected, and that students with difficult backgrounds and situations, such as mature, part-time or disabled learners, are able to access higher education equally.

Before it even starts work the OfS has been proving controversial (The Times HE). After author and journalist Toby Young was appointed to the new body, a petition to remove him received more than 220,000 signatures. Comments and tweets from his past were uncovered, and a report found that his appointment had been a result of political interference. Young resigned subsequently.

Critics have said the “Office for State Control” would be a more fitting title for the group, warning it was “dangerous for democracy.”

“People are quite nervous about us,” says Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students’ CEO. “It is true that we have very extensive powers, and I think there’s some anxiety about how we’re going to use them.”… “I’m very keen that we emphasise our common objectives, which is to act in the student’s best interests. How could you not want to do that?”

Upholding free speech in universities

The OfS board will make sure universities uphold free speech, or else, Dandridge says. Campuses that fail to demonstrate compliance with the Education Act 1986 – that enshrines free speech rights in universities – could face interventions, sanctions, or even fines.

“Many, if not everyone, would acknowledge that [free speech is] a really fundamental part of university life, that people can express their opinions, as long as they’re within the law, freely and openly,” she explains. “Generally universities take free speech very seriously.”

Nicola Dandridge, the CEO of the new Office for Students is hopeful it can promote student interests and choice at universities. Photo by: WikiTribune/Lydia Morrish

To keep universities compliant with free speech policies, they will have to show the OfS that they are. This could be by publishing a free speech compliance code.

Universities will have to demonstrate they satisfy a set of 24 regulatory conditions such as quality and financial sustainability to first register with the body, says Dandridge. Then, they will be monitored in case they dip below that standard. But the OfS will rely on universities demonstrating how they meet standards themselves, which leaves room for the twisting of facts. However, Dandridge is confident that universities want to protect student interests and will comply.

“Our assumption is that universities and providers are going to tell the truth … If there’s suggestion that they’ve misled us, we will come down very heavily,” she says.

Say no to ‘no-platforming’

Banning speakers whom students don’t like is called “no-platforming” (because they are denied a platform). It was the risk of being “no-platformed” that made Michela Wrong cancel her Bristol University appearance. But the practice has become a symbol for student intolerance of controversial characters that wraps into debates on hate speech, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” (The Guardian).

Right-wing journalist and ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned appearance at the Berkeley campus of the University of California last year was blocked after “violent” demonstrations by students (CNN). Likewise, libertarian scholar and author Charles Murray met protesters when he arrived at Harvard College to give a talk in September (Washington Post).

Yiannapoulos was also denied a platform in Manchester, England. Both he and feminist writer Julie Bindel were banned by the University of Manchester in 2015. Meanwhile, a lecture by Australian feminist scholar Germaine Greer, well-known in the UK for her views on transgender women that have been called “problematic,” (The Guardianwas postponed after she was accused of being “transphobic” by students at Cardiff University in Wales.

Former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos (pictured in 2013) was banned from speaking at University of Manchester in 2015. Photo by: Kmeron for LeWeb13 Conference via Flickr

Bristol University’s students’ union went a step further when it voted to pass a motion to completely no-platform “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” (“Terfs”) a derogatory term that is used to describe people who don’t believe that transgender women are the same as cisgender women (The Times), including Greer. The motion is yet to become official union policy, but the university’s chancellor came down hard on no-platforming and the creation of “safe spaces” in 2017, saying that “universities are robust enough” to “deal with a range of ideas” including those that are “absurd and even obscene.”

Mirroring this view, former universities minister Jo Johnson defended plans to allow the OfS (The Guardian) to fine or suspend institutions that fail to protect freedom of speech on campuses, stating: “Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged.”

But nearly two-thirds of UK university students said the National Union of Students (NUS) is right to enforce its “no platform” policy that bans six organizations on the basis they are racist or fascist. It’s due to add another to the list, the nationalist group Britain First. Student unions affiliated with the NUS are contractually obliged to also no-platform the groups.

“[No-platforming] is a useful tactic when dangerous speakers or known fascist speakers are invited to speak at events or maybe invited to speak at events,” says Lucas North, a student at the University of York, who also supports no-platforming “Terfs” and people with known racist views.

“Hearing an idea in a university environment and academic environment gives it academic credit and says it’s a view worth hearing. Personally I don’t view fascist views as being worth hearing,” says North. “I see them as being extremely negative to the point where we should be condemning them not trying to battle them out with a nice polite debate, because these people aren’t nice and polite.”

After an administrative error that led to the cancellation of a visit from right-wing political activist and co-founder of the English Defence League (on the NUS’s banned list), Tommy Robinson, he visited the University of York campus “unofficially” and “harassed” students, says North. “You could tell if the event had gone ahead, it would not have had any academic value.” Robinson, however, said the talk was cancelled “due to threats of violence by far-left organisations and communists” (The Yorker) and that free speech in universities was “dead” (The Tab).

North defends universities’ rights to no-platform: “Every university is a private venue and can choose who it gives space to and who it doesn’t. The right to freedom of speech is not the right to a platform to air that speech.”

Yet the paradox of no-platforming is that, while intended to protect students from intolerant or harmful people and opinions, those who support it are making a judgement call on what views are correct, or worthy, of being heard, which critics say is in itself intolerant.

“You don’t fight intolerance by being intolerant yourself,” says Ariel Carson, a 23-year-old post-graduate student at University of the Arts London. “[The BNP, one of the groups banned] are nasty people, but that doesn’t mean you hide from them and show you’re scared. You challenge their views…I completely disagree with no-platforming.”

“I believe very strongly in free speech and take the view that if a particular individual is a horrible idiot the best thing to do is usually to shine a spotlight on them … I am not keen on totalitarianism, quasi-censorship or anything else that comes close to creating a social consensus that George Orwell’s 1984 thought crime exists in real life.”

Free speech not the big issue

However many students themselves are not thinking about free speech, their represenatives say. Free speech on campus is not a concern for most students, says Amatey Doku, vice president for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), the largest group representing UK students.

“It’s not in the top priority for students,” says the 22-year-old Cambridge University graduate. “You can ask a student, ‘What is a key issue for you? A key priority for you?’ Virtually none of them will have freedom of speech as an issue.”

Doku says the media has overplayed the issue. “There’s simply no evidence that it exists,” says Doku, adding: “The vast majority of students take part in debates, listen to whoever they want to.…Not all students agree on everything, but what will happen is [these stories fit] the whole narrative that students are too sensitive, Generation Snowflake.”

Doku says that students protesting against speakers are conflated with no-platforming. “[Protesting] is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. Its been happening for years, and years, and years. That is taken to be free speech when it’s actually an infringement of free speech.”

Amatey Doku, the 22-year-old vice president of higher education for the National Union of Students, speaking at an event hosted by Wonkhe about Office for Students. Photo by: Wonkhe

The only student on the OfS board, Ruth Carlson, says free speech is important to her personally. “I know the importance of having a platform to be able to speak on because in my own personal endeavours, I’ve been told to ‘sit down, shut up, stop talking about these things that I wanna talk about.'”

She conceded that it’s not big worry for her peers.  “When all students sit down, is this what they’re talking about? No. They’re talking about the fact that they can’t put the heating on at home because their student rent is too high.”

A student panel with 13 members that has been appointed in addition to 12 members of the OfS board will help push the student agenda and student-led research, says Carlson. “It’s powerful because if 13 diverse student panellists believe that, for example, we should do some research into student wellbeing and what services universities have, then we can,” says Carlson.

Louis Coiffait, associate editor of Wonkhe, a think-tank and blog about higher education, agrees that free speech is a “minor issue” for universities. “The minor threat around free speech is that universities clamp down on free speech and become snowflakes and don’t want to hear from UKIP speakers or right-wing speakers,” he says.

More worrying, according to Coiffait, is over-regulation of universities in the new system. Exactly which government group exerts control over free speech is a “very opaque area,” he says, adding that student voices have been missing in the national free speech debate.

“The risk is not the slightly barmy students who, in my opinion, [are] overly boycotting people you would normally think they wouldn’t boycott, let alone the sort of people you’d assume they would boycott. That’s not a danger of free speech to me. The danger is that we have a heavy-handed government-backed political regulator suddenly talking about fining institutions for what it considers breaches of free speech,” says Coiffait.

“In my opinion, that is a bigger threat to free speech than the odd over-enthusiastic students’ union sabbatical officer.”

Michela Wrong, who has been documenting Africa’s “democratic recession” for 25 years, starkly compares the situation there to the situation in the UK.

“What’s happening in the countries that I report on is a very dramatic closing of the democratic space taking place and of free speech, and you’re seeing rigging of elections, intimidation of civil society, you’re seeing censorship of the local press…Things are getting worse not better. And yet, the student body in the West is getting more and more apparently fragile.”

“If university campuses can’t tolerate free speech, where can?”

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