There is no free speech crisis at UK universities

Free and open debate is alive and well on UK campuses, but new guidance on how universities can best encourage and protect free speech is welcome, says Peter Tatchell

July 19, 2018
Free speech

Free speech is under attack by some students in some universities. But there is no general crisis of free speech, as is often alleged.

A good example is the fact that I have not been no platformed in the way that many people believe. Indeed, the exclusion of speakers is, in fact, relatively rare.

Overall, I find most universities positive, conducive places for healthy debate. When you compare the lively conversations that take place on UK campuses with those that are openly or more subtly squeezed out, or plain banned, in other countries, our universities look like bastions of free speech.

And yet…not everything is perfect. A minority of students do seem remarkably intolerant and unwilling to hear others’ views. It’s not even a left/right split. Sometimes the fiercest disagreements come between people who all regard themselves as progressive.

Challenging student meetings can get bogged down in red tape about the rules of debate and their interpretation. It is also sometimes contested who can speak, what they can say and the degree of dissent that is permitted.

Freshers struggling to cope with living away from home and adjusting to university life are not always given the intellectual tools and practical advice they need to help them negotiate the thickets of open debate.

In my view, bad ideas are most soundly defeated by good ideas. Bigoted opinions should never be given a free pass. They should always be protested and countered. But the best way to do this is usually by subjecting them to open debate, to show why they are factually and morally wrong.

Bans do not make intolerance go away or dissuade its supporters. Strong counterarguments backed by evidence and research are much more effective and reach a far wider audience.

So, I welcome the Higher Education Policy Institute’s report, which offers institutions some practical guidance on what good codes of practice look like. We may or may not agree with all this guidance, but the essence of what it proposes is surely sound and helpful. The right to free speech is hard won and not always easy to protect. This report helps us to protect it.

As the UK faces the challenges of Brexit, right-wing populism, Islamist extremism and the demands of marginalised communities like trans people, free and open debate on all issues will become more important than ever. And universities and students have a vital, precious role to play in these debates.

Let’s defend free speech, now and always. It is the linchpin of a democratic and free society.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner and director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. 

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