Tongues truly tied

October 26, 2001

Freedom of speech is being eroded and academics are complicit in its demise, argues Dennis Hayes.

The university is the institutional embodiment of faith in the power of reason. It is a place set aside from society in which academics and students have the freedom to question or propose ideas. The only test that these ideas have is their examination through open and public debate. This is what makes the university democratic.

The Hillhead amendment to the 1988 Education Reform bill protects the right to "question and test received wisdom" and has been incorporated into the statutes or articles and instruments of governance of all universities and colleges in Britain.

The amendment also contains the important qualification, "freedom within the law". This amendment had no real force until the present government began to introduce "thought crime" legislation. A ban on Holocaust denial was first suggested; then came the legislation following the Macpherson inquiry that made racist thought a crime in specific instances; and now we have David Blunkett's proposal to make "religious hate" a criminal offence.

It is hard to find defenders of freedom of speech in the university - attempts to raise the issue are seen as improper. Those who oppose censorship are often accused of implicitly condoning abhorrent views and beliefs. But such an assertion demonstrates a misunderstanding of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not fundamentally about the speaker, it is about respecting the audience, whether this is the public, colleagues or students. It means respecting each person's ability to make up their mind on any issue.

The question that should be asked about any attempts to restrict freedom of speech, whether aimed at Osama bin Laden's videos, Al-Jazeera television broadcasts or the arguments of racists and bigots is: "How do the censors view the audience for such speech?" The answer usually demonstrates a patronising or contemptuous assumption on the part of the censor. People are seen as vulnerable, unable to cope and lacking in the intelligence needed to avoid responding to speech in an irrational or violent fashion.

Unfortunately, the academic community has been instrumental in encouraging an impoverished view of people. The formal and informal message that greets students each year is not that of the Hillhead amendment but one that says that part of being at university involves learning what not to say. Students are encouraged in many ways to see themselves and others as needing protection from offensive and controversial ideas.

Student unions have clearly accepted this demeaning view of their members by supporting "no platform" bans and a variety of speech codes. Even lecturers' professional organisations are complicit in arguing for similar bans and speech codes.

These policies and codes assist in closing down more and more areas where open discussion and debate are a necessity. Whatever the outcomes of Mr Blunkett's legislative proposals, it will not be long before it is impossible for academics to criticise religious belief as irrational, or for people of one religious persuasion to criticise another.

What we are witnessing is the intellectual triumph of Milton over Mill. The new censorship in the academic world takes the form: "Freedom of speech, yes, but not in this case."

It is becoming accepted that there is some speech that contains ideas too abominable to hear because someone or some group is too weak to cope with them. The consequence of this protective censorship is that academics will become more cautious; they will lack the confidence to speak up on broad social issues.

Worse still, there will be a change in the way in which ideas are tested. Increasingly, the test of any idea will not be how it stands up in debate - whether it is found to be true or not - but the bureaucratic test of whether it infringes a "rule" established by the government, the university senate, a professional organisation or the student union.

By not opposing restrictions on freedom of speech and not being willing to commit thought crimes, academics are retreating from the debating chamber into the disciplinary hearing. This can only diminish and ultimately destroy what remains of academic freedom.

Dennis Hayes is head of post-compulsory education at Canterbury Christ Church University College.

* Does the new legislation restrict university freedom?


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