Universities to be fined for violations of free speech by students
By Peter Tatchell
Plans to fine universities over free speech restrictions are dangerous
The i newspaper, London, UK – 20 October 2017
I’m a passionate defender of free speech and concerned by the way some university student unions are imposing over-zealous restrictions on who can speak on campus and what they can say. Universities should be places where ideas can be contested and debated. Bad ideas can be most effectively defeated by good ideas, backed with evidence, logic and ethics, not by crude bans.
However, I am also alarmed by new government proposals that will require university authorities to indiscriminately clamp down on student bodies that for any reason “no platform” speakers or restrict them via “safe space” policies.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, is planning to allow the newly-created Office for Students to fine, suspend or deregister universities that fail to protect freedom of speech. University administrators will have a duty to uphold free speech by staff, student unions and student societies. It seems very unfair – and unworkable – to place this onus on the university, not the students whose actions Johnson objects to.
Freedom of speech is one of the most precious human rights. A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. But some students justify ‘no platforms’ and ‘safe spaces’ in the name of not causing offence, even though nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important ideas in human history – such as those of Galileo Galilei, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud – caused great offence in their time. There is no right to not be offended, whether on a university campus or anywhere else.
Nevertheless, a 2016 survey found that 63% of university students support the National Union of Students (NUS) having a “no platform” policy. Analysis published this year by Spiked magazine alleged that 63.5% of universities actively censor speech and 30.5% stifle speech through excessive regulation. This sounds very alarming but in some cases the restrictions were minor and did not seriously diminish the free exchange of ideas.
Influenced by this research, Johnson justified his proposals: “Our young people and students need to accept the legitimacy of healthy, vigorous debate in which people can disagree with one another. That’s how ideas get tested, prejudices exposed and society advances. Universities mustn’t be places in which free speech is stifled.”
A laudable sentiment. But his plan seems ill-thought-out and oblivious to the potentially incendiary consequences. It looks set to turn universities into speech-policing institutions and put them on a collision course with the government and with their own student bodies. It could provoke the biggest student revolt since the 1960s. And if that happens, in many cases I may be on the side of the students. Johnson’s proposals are too blunt and unqualified.
There are some instances where restrictions on free speech may be legitimate: To stop racist, misogynistic and anti-LGBT abuse, threats, harassment and incitements to violence or to prevent racial or gender segregation in campus meetings. These are abuses of free speech that intimidate and exclude people; diminishing open debate. Students are right to want to halt these abuses and the government should not penalise universities if they do so.
The NUS ‘no platform’ policy includes only six “racist or fascist” organisations: Al-Muhajiroun; British National Party; English Defence League; Hizb-ut-Tahir; Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and National Action. It has, however, been more widely interpreted by some student unions and societies, including attempts to ban Nick Lowles, director of the anti-racist group Hope Not Hate for opposing far right Islamists, and Maryam Namazie, the Iranian communist and feminist. She has critiqued Islamist extremists who advocate the killing of Jews, ex-Muslims, apostates, blasphemers, LGBT people and women who have sex outside of marriage. I was also a victim. A NUS official refused to speak at a student meeting if I was on the platform. She claimed, without evidence, that I was racist and transphobic.
The ‘safe space’ policy is commendably intended to ensure that students – including women and racial, sexual and gender minorities – are not victimised or overlooked in debates. But again, it has been subject to excessive interpretations. At Edinburgh University in 2016 student Imogen Wilson was threatened with ejection from a meeting after she raised her hand and shook her head in disagreement with a speaker. It was said her actions violated the ‘safe space’ policy which prohibits “gestures which denote disagreement.”
The main problem with the government’s proposals is: What will be the red lines? How will the policy be interpreted? Will it not lead to subjective judgments and be open to inconsistencies and misuse? Where are the exemptions to permit restrictions on speech that involves abuse, harassment and violence?
As the German communist, Rosa Luxemburg, John Stuart Mill, Mohandas Gandhi and many others have argued: freedom of speech means nothing if it doesn’t exist for the person who thinks differently. Students and government please take note.