Power and speech

April 5, 2018

The article “Stop taking liberties with free speech” ( Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2018, 22 March) verged on self-satirising propaganda for the Office for Students and its plan to fine institutions that “stifle [free speech] through no-platforming and safe-space policies”.

Despite referring to a 2017 Higher Education Policy Institute survey that “found that 76 per cent of students expressed some support for no-platforming policies”, the article in effect no platforms the no platformers in favour of an uncritical display of support for the OfS’ plan.

The article’s main argument is that the OfS plan “is a boon for those who believe that exposure to wide-ranging views is a fundamental part of the academic experience” – as if anyone might actually disagree with that. The article fails to address the ministerial (and media) hypocrisy surrounding this moral panic, but it also leaves unturned the wider issues at stake in this government-led attack on the intellectual autonomy of universities and the right of students’ unions to decide who they want to invite into the spaces they control.

Student supporters of no platforming are generally rendered invisible or grossly misrepresented as being against free speech. But actually, they have grasped a more important communicational principle that applies with remorseless logic across the whole of social life, namely that powerful elites, institutions and governments exercise their power through a media system that excludes, silences and/or stigmatises those who don’t support their agenda; this is how they maintain their influence and grip – not by debate or winning the argument.

Students have a right to push back by forming their own institutional outposts of opinion and influence from which progressive social change as they see it may be protected or enhanced. This, I suggest, is the real issue behind the authoritarian impulse of the OfS. You would think that universities would be able to see through it and refuse to be bullied into policing student opinion.

Peter E. Jones
Department of humanities
Sheffield Hallam University

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