Claims from Donald Trump, Fox News and Spiked about a campus free speech crisis or today’s “snowflake” students are an “ignorant, ahistorical analysis”, a new pamphlet argues.
Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at human rights organisation Liberty and former senior counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Obama-era US Department of Justice, argues that controversies over campus free speech sometimes arise “from misunderstanding…basic limits of free speech”, in a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 27 June.
“When particular academics or student groups refuse to share a stage with another invited speaker, that is not a violation of anyone’s free speech,” Ms Stoughton writes. “Someone may wish to tell that to recent ministers for universities [in England], including Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah.”
But, citing the European Convention on Human Rights’ protection for free speech and the 1986 Education Act duties placed on universities, Ms Stoughton adds: “[When] any institution, including a students’ union, exercises a university’s power to veto a speaker’s invitation or censor a speech that someone else on campus has arranged to hear, or when any group of people are left free to directly disrupt someone’s act of speech, that is a free speech problem.”
Ms Stoughton cites the 2018 finding from the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights that restrictions on free speech in universities were “not a pervasive problem” and a YouGov survey which found that students were no more likely than the general public to want to ban speakers whose views they find offensive.
She says universities have “always been a battleground for ideas about the balance between free speech and equality”, with the National Union of Students adopting its first no-platform policy in 1974 in response to fascist movements, while left critiques of free speech on equality grounds stretch back to the work of feminist and race studies academics in the 1980s.
“When Spiked.com or Donald Trump or Fox News engage in handwringing about a ‘campus free speech crisis’, suggesting academic freedom and the human capacity for critical thinking face extinction from a unique modern threat, when they insult the contemporary generation of university students as ‘snowflakes’ who cannot endure intellectual challenge, don’t stand for it,” Ms Stoughton writes. “That is an ignorant, ahistorical analysis. It is fake news.”
On the government’s Prevent strategy to tackle radicalisation and impose limitations on events featuring allegedly extremist speakers, she says: “There is a substantial irony in the government spuriously accusing today’s students of threatening free speech when, in fact, the true threat to free speech on campus is the government’s own policies.”
Studies have found that Prevent has led to Muslim students self-censoring or disengaging from campus life and their studies.
Ms Stoughton says: “There is every reason to believe that black and minority ethnic students and academics, as well as those of Muslim faith, will be caught up in the Prevent programme, and even more reason to know that their exercise of the right to freedom of speech, conscience and association has been compromised.”
Ms Stoughton told Times Higher Education that the free speech debate “suffers for having been co-opted by a small group of very vocal people, primarily from the far-right fringe of politics, who paint [themselves] as the primary victims of free speech violations”.
“The people who actually suffer most from infringements on their free speech the most are not the ones with public relations advisers and access to opinion-editorial pages, but people who lack political, economic and social power,” she said.
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