Will enforcing free speech on campus bring freedom or tyranny?

Last week’s spats over universities’ supposed anti-Brexit bias and what to do about it highlight the contested nature of free speech

November 2, 2017
Woman in EU mask
Source: Getty

“We are proud that York voted to remain in the European Union. We are proud that that vote demonstrates a spirit of generosity and openness that our students experience on a daily basis.”

So read the University of York’s advice to students after the UK voted last year to leave the EU.

And good on it, you might well say. How could an international community of scholars take any other view, especially in light of the xenophobia underlying some of the Leave campaigning? And, after all, Brexit is not a party political issue – both main parties are deeply split over its merits.

Yet ever since the referendum result was announced, the UK’s right-wing press has been quick to attack anyone who raises so much as a finger against a hard Brexit that no one actually campaigned for. Most infamous was the Daily Mail ’s verdict on the judges who ruled that Parliament must have a say over triggering exit proceedings: “enemies of the people”.

That context helps to explain the fierce academic reaction last week to revelations that Eurosceptic Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris had written to all vice-chancellors asking for details of their institutions’ teaching on Brexit, including lecturers’ names.

The request was variously decried as McCarthyist, Leninist and Orwellian. Some countered by noting that, as a mere junior whip, Heaton-Harris has no power to police university course content. Universities minister Jo Johnson went on the radio to insist that academic freedom was enshrined in law and that Heaton-Harris had only been researching a book on attitudes towards Europe. But others pointed out on social media that the MP did not need any direct power to do his worst because the right-wing press would do it for him.

Sure enough, the very next day the Mail dedicated five full pages to railing against what its front-page headline called “our remainer universities”. Articles included a rogues’ gallery of supposedly “leftie” Oxbridge heads, alongside various instances of alleged pro-remain bias that the paper had uncovered at universities. (The awkward fact that one of Heaton-Harris’ biggest critics, the pro-remain University of Oxford chancellor Chris Patten, is a former Conservative minister was deftly sidestepped with the observation that he was an “arch-wet”.)

The claim that universities are dens of leftist bias are, of course, familiar in the US, too. In our cover story, Nicholas Dirks, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, ruefully recalls the night that militant anti-fascists forced the cancellation of a talk by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos – and the tweet the following morning by President Trump threatening to retaliate against Berkeley’s supposed suppression of free speech by cutting off its funding.

Dirks is concerned by political attempts to control what university leaders say, with the threat of sanctions if they are judged to be too political. “Virtually everything we say around inclusion and diversity” could fall foul of such rules, he worries.

The Mail ’s leader also mentions “‘no-platforming’ Right-leaning speakers (which really is the first step to the thought police)”, while the proposed rules for the new English regulator, the Office for Students, recently announced by Johnson, include threats of funding cuts or even deregistration if universities do not defend free speech.

Clearly two different definitions of “free speech” are at work here. For the politicians, it is a question of ideological balance (in practice, ensuring that right-wing voices are heard). For academics, it is more a case of having control over what they teach.

Clearly, academics should have that freedom. And, equally clearly, some interpretative frameworks, in subjects such as history, economics and sociology, have unavoidably political tinges. It is indeed incumbent on lecturers to strive to teach in as ideologically balanced a fashion as possible; to treat lecturing as an opportunity to, as the Mail puts it, turn out “indoctrinated clones” would do students a grave disservice. But, equally, teaching shorn of all personal opinion would be unlikely to engage its fee-paying audience. Nor can academics be reasonably expected to ignore the weight of evidence suggesting that Brexit will have a negative impact on the economy and on education (whatever Leave campaigners might think about the predictions of “experts”).

Tellingly, the Mail does not cite any evidence of biased teaching; its examples are in the greyer area outside or at the end of lectures. Another example is a Durham academic who invited students by email to campaign for the UK to remain in the single market, in line with “the university’s explicit post-Brexit statement, namely, ‘We flourish because we are an inclusive and outward-looking community’”.

As in the York case, any other stance would seem untenable for an international academic community. However, the new OfS regulation, if not the Mail tirade, is likely to diminish the number of academics willing to say such things out loud. Whether that counts as a step towards freedom or tyranny is, alongside funding, the higher education issue of our time.


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