How to defend free speech in universities

free speech, News, universities

Free speech is a hotly debated topic currently in the university sector. Dennis Hayes discusses why speech is censored and what can be done to tackle it.*

A new report from the think tank Civitas reveals that 86 percent of universities restrict free speech. Only 19 universities (14 percent) were categorised as ‘most friendly’ to free speech. This is a disturbing finding, because universities cannot really be said to be universities unless they allow unrestricted freedom of speech and open debate.

Why is freedom of speech important?

Freedom of speech is the foundation of freedom. Unless we express our beliefs and ideas and put them up for debate and challenge, we cannot know whether what we think is true or false. We cannot even begin to defend other values, such as equality or democracy, without exercising our freedom of speech. If we do not engage in debate, we are no more than parrots uttering sounds that have no meaning.

Universities embody society’s commitment to freedom of speech in its fullest sense. Academics are paid not only to have opinions but to research and test those opinions. This is what ‘academic freedom’ means. If universities restrict freedom of speech, they are attacking themselves. They are in danger of turning themselves into training establishments that teach ‘truths’ that cannot be challenged.

Why is freedom of speech censored?

We live in a therapeutic culture that is documented and explained in my co-authored book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. Therapeutic education emphasises emotion over the intellect and has produced what is often called the ‘Snowflake Generation’ of students. This characterisation of a generation is unfair because they are not snowflakes who cannot cope with ‘offensive’ or challenging ideas. It is universities and student unions that see students as vulnerable and unable to cope. They believe that the university must be transformed into a ‘safe space’ in which students are protected from emotional harm through exposure to ‘offensive’ ideas. Therefore, many restrictions and bans seem to be aimed at ‘protecting’ students. The reality is they are stunting their intellectual growth and potential.

What can universities do to defend freedom of speech?

Many of the restrictions universities place on freedom of speech are an epiphenomenon of committees. They are often ‘added to’ policies by academics and administrators going beyond any legal requirement and trying to regulate out ‘offensive’ ideas. The few universities that are categorised as ‘most friendly’ to free speech – including the University of Derby – are often those with clear but minimalist policies.

In the academic year 2016-17 with the agreement of the Vice-Chancellor and the Academic Registrar, the University of Derby began a review of all polices to remove regulations that went beyond the law and were ‘over enthusiastic’ about controlling speech. This included writing Freedom of Speech and External Speakers  policies that are models of best practice. As a consequence, in 2019, the University achieved a ‘green’ ranking in the for freedom of speech in the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), researched and assessed by the online magazine Spiked. The listing in the Civitas report shows that this approach continues to be effective but that there must be constant vigilance to maintain a culture of free speech.

A similar process could be undertaken in every university committed to freedom of speech and they could soon move out of red to an amber or even a green ranking. A start could be made by weeding out any statement that contains the word ‘offensive’.

Universities should also remind student unions that if they wish to use the label ‘University of X SU’ they must uphold the values of the university and not restrict freedom of speech. Student unions may claim to be independent organisations – legally they are – but if they ban, censor and ‘No Platform’ speakers and groups, they should not lay claim to a title borrowed from a distinguished institution whose values they reject.

If universities really believe that free speech is their foundational value, they must take it seriously and put in the hard work to ensure it is not accidently undermined by committees or by political activists amongst the academic staff or in student unions who happily undermine the university in pursuit of political goals.

*This is an updated version of a University of Derby blog post from 2018.

(Photo credit: BoI/Tom Fenn)

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