New rules of engagement in free speech battle

Revised freedom of speech guidelines are pushing universities to be both more active in heading off problems before they start, but also less political

八月 31, 2023
Uruguayan United Nations peacekeepers look through binoculars to illustrate New rules of engagement
Source: Getty Images

The rules of engagement for armed conflict as we know them originated in the Hague Convention of 1899. Initially they directed the treatment of prisoners, use of certain weapons and protection of civilians. They have evolved significantly over the past century or so, responding to the complexities of modern warfare and international human rights laws, but rules of engagement have always served several purposes. Among them is the aim to protect a moral stance on how nations can use force in military operations, as well as giving political leaders a way to maintain public support for often fraught and expensive conflicts.

More critical to democracy, rules of engagement aim to promote transparency around how war is conducted, ever important as we witness it via news packages and intimately through social media. Wars are raging and the world is watching.

There are similarities to be drawn with the battles around freedom of speech at universities. Couched in bellicose language, rules of engagement on how to protect and promote universities’ fundamental value of free expression have become part of modern higher education discourse.

The Chicago Principles are the standard-bearer of these directives, published in 2014 “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse”. The authors intended to entrench the university’s “solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it”. More than 80 institutions in the US have since adopted them.

Although fundamental to the university mission, free speech has been co-opted by right-leaning politicians eager to coddle a culture war. And as political pressure on universities to prove they are not pandering to a woke agenda ratchets up, it’s not surprising that this month more guidelines have emerged on protecting freedom of speech. They build on the Chicago statement, encouraging universities to be both more active in heading off problems before they start, but also less political.

“Universities should not be made into political or ideological battlegrounds,” the authors of the new Princeton Principles declare.  

In the UK, the controversial Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act, legislation mostly viewed by the sector as a political answer to a problem that doesn’t exist, carries the threat of civil proceedings against any institution deemed in breach of the policy. 

Arif Ahmed, who has been charged with enforcing the new law as the country’s first director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, wrote in The Times that the freedom to explore controversial or “offensive” ideas is “worth fighting for”, arguing that “this [policy], not censorship, is the only real engine of both scientific discovery and social progress”.

Rubbing up against these directives, though, are strategies to create equal, diverse and inclusive campus cultures. Critics of the Chicago Principles argue that commitment to absolute free speech risks hindering efforts to create inclusive and safe spaces for marginalised groups on campuses. While Harvey Mansfield, retiring after one of Harvard’s longest tenured careers, has a right to express deplorable racist views about the intellectual abilities of black people to our reporter, do his black students not also have a right to be taught by someone who will give them a fair shot? To “thrive” – as Harvard itself says is its goal for all students? Spending on EDI initiatives is also in the political cross hairs.

This is the high wire upon which universities will continue to teeter. Another potential flashpoint will be the 2028 Research Excellence Framework, which looks to allocate 25 per cent of scores – the same as research impact – to “people, culture and environment”. It’s a noble mission but our cover feature this week explores concerns across the sector that this effort to codify something as contested and hazy as “culture” runs risks, both institutional and political. As one observer said, if the treasury sees that “a university’s research might be rubbish” but “it’s a nice place to work”,  “I can easily see it saying, ‘We’re not funding that’”.

Rules of engagement only work when everyone agrees to them. It’s one thing to nail your colours to the mast in defence of your values. But it’s quite another when they are used to attack your institution’s accreditation, research funding and very future.

The war over free speech in higher education is raging. And the world is watching.



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