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Why plans to fine universities that fail to defend free speech are an overreaction

Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities, announced on Boxing Day that he was planning to set up an independent body to monitor how pro-free speech universities are. Jon Petre gives his thoughts on why it might be counter-productive

On Boxing Day the Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, announced that next year a new regulating body will be set up, with the power to fine universities that fail to defend free speech. This is chiefly a response to the NUS’ policies on no-platforming, where students’ unions prevent speakers from giving lectures or taking part in debate on campus if their presence is thought to present a threat to students’ wellbeing and safety. More and more people are becoming critical of no-platforming policies, worried that closing the door to offensive or intolerant speakers is itself intolerant. Some of these concerns are valid, but I’m not convinced that the government’s solution is the right one.

The main argument against NUS no-platforming is the fear that banning controversial speakers from campuses constitutes an attack on free speech. These new regulatory powers are designed to help safeguard free speech and regulate non-compliant universities and students’ unions.

“Universities must be a place where controversial ideas can be brought out into the open and challenged.”

Now, let me say that I’m sceptical of no-platforming. In his announcement, Mr Johnson said that “One of the great strengths of our higher education sector is academic freedom”, and, as public institutions, universities must be a place where controversial ideas can be brought out into the open and challenged, just like all other ideas. Even if we might not like what people say (and there is a lot of vile rhetoric out there) it’s simply not good enough to deny them a platform. While doing so isn’t the same as silencing their voice altogether, we have a duty to engage in debate and critical thinking. Allow them to engage in debate, prove their opinions wrong. Without engaging with extreme views, we will never entirely defeat them. But the idea that free speech is somehow under attack in British universities is based on hyperbole and a misinterpretation of the facts.

The media loves to use things like no-platforming as evidence that students are incapable of having our opinions challenged – that we aren’t resilient enough (those damn snowflakes!) to deal with views that we find unpleasant or offensive. Detractors of the NUS point to a survey which claimed that 63% of students believe the NUS is right to no-platform speakers. Another common example of students’ intolerance is the University of Cardiff’s attempt to ban Germaine Greer from speaking due to alleged ‘transphobic’ comments.

“Those who accuse students of being too easily offended are the most outraged.”

If you do a little more digging into these stories, you’ll realise that the facts have been misrepresented, largely to create hysteria. The ComRes survey interviewed a grand total of 1,001 students, out of the 2.28 million currently studying in the UK. I fail to see how this statistic proves anything about how a majority of students feel. As for Cardiff, the proposal to ban Greer was exactly that – a proposal, which was blocked. Greer, under tight security, did speak at the event. How ironic, that those who accuse students of being too easily offended are the most outraged.

While the NUS defends its policy of allowing individual students’ unions to ban speakers at their discretion, the official blacklist only stretches to six groups – including the National Front, the BNP, and Al-Muhajiroun – all extremist groups with a history of violence that, regardless of free speech, can’t be tolerated anywhere. The NUS has a responsibility to listen to student voices when they feel threatened, and without considering the reasons behind policies like no-platforming it’s easy to see them as intolerant. Though I am against the kind of no-platforming that Johnson and some media outlets fear, that’s not what is happening here.

“We have a duty to uphold ideals of free speech on campuses.”

In light of this, Mr Johnson’s proposed measures are largely symbolic. How enforceable, really, is a fine on bodies that aren’t respecting academic freedom? Who decides what is and isn’t an attack on free speech? Isn’t that kind of regulation exactly the kind of thing that threatens free speech in the first place? Surely there are more important aspects of student life in the UK that Jo Johnson should be worrying about.

Student politics can be volatile, and student politicians can be frustratingly close-minded sometimes, but the government’s heavy-handed solutions to tackling extremism on campuses hasn’t worked before, and it’s unlikely to work now. Student officers for Welfare and BAME communities have hit out against the damaging way that the counter-terrorism organisation PREVENT interacts with groups deemed vulnerable to radicalisation. The government is quick to respond but hasty in its thinking, and thoughtless, symbolic approaches have soured relations between student organisations and the government.

Jo Johnson ended his Boxing Day speech by saying that the new regulator is still in early development, and that proposals for the new body are open for consultation. Perhaps a more fruitful approach would be for both the Office of Students and the NUS to pause for a moment: for both sides to engage in a dialogue based on what is actually happening on campuses across the country, instead of outrage and hyperbole. There is a delicate balance to be struck between maintaining student welfare and ensuring a spectrum of opinion to exist in public life, and Johnson is right that we have a duty to uphold ideals of free speech on campuses. But judging what is and isn’t an attack on free speech and then fining the non-compliant will only damage relations further, and harm academic freedom in the process.

Jon Petre

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Image courtesy of Caitlyn_and_Kara on Flickr.

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