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We need to talk about free speech again. Sorry.

  • 23 December 2019
  • By Richard Brabner

This blog was kindly contributed by Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP foundation. Richard has written this article in a personal capacity and they reflect his own views rather than those of the UPP Foundation.

Readers of this fabulous website will generally think, as I do, that the free speech ‘crisis’ is overblown. They will sigh and tut, as I do, when universities are described as ‘left-wing madrassas’ by commentators with malign intentions. They will find it a little hypocritical, as I do, when students who protest controversial speakers are criticised for expressing their free speech. But there is a free speech problem. It is a feature of free speech that rarely takes centre stage, but it is a challenge that is pernicious and incredibly tricky to overcome. It is the difficulty of reconciling an individual’s free speech with the impact it has on someone else’s freedom to express their views. This is an issue which must be tackled in 2020.

When the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into free speech at universities published its report in 2018 (informed by research commissioned from HEPI), it generally gave the sector a clean bill of health. But in its list of recommendations it concluded that there might be a ‘chilling effect’ on some students who feel unable to express their views on campus and recommended a large survey of students’ opinions to find out whether students are comfortable with sharing their views. King’s College London has recently conducted such a survey of students at UK higher education institutions (not just those studying at King’s) and the results are concerning.

Overall, a quarter of all students have said that they are scared to express their views openly. That is bad enough in itself, but there is a political dimension to this which should spark alarm bells. Over 30 per cent of conservative-supporting students feel they are unable to express their views on campus, compared to 20 per cent of left-leaning students and there is a similar split with Brexit: 32 per cent of those who voted to leave the EU felt unable to express their views, compared to 23 per cent of those who voted to remain. This is not healthy for our sector. Not only does it play into the damaging narrative that universities are of the left, but it reveals that universities as institutions can be unwelcoming places to students (with mainstream opinions, after all) who do not subscribe to the majority-view. That’s not something any of us should be comfortable with.

There are likely to be numerous causes of the chilling effect. It is a topic which should be investigated, debated and discussed across the sector. The first potential cause which could be looked at is the way people use social media. The King’s survey found that 86% of students felt that the widespread use of social media has allowed people to express intolerant views. A daily trawl of academic twitter will uncover a vast array of hostile tweets about the government and conservatives. Fair enough, that is their free speech – but how much of an impact does this have on their students? When academics vent on twitter they are not talking to their friends down the pub. It is a public platform, viewed by, among others, their students. As teachers, academics are in a position of authority, a position of power over their students. When conservatives are described as ‘vermin’ by an academic on twitter, would it be a great surprise if conservative-leaning students being taught by the same academic might be reluctant to share their views in a seminar?

I do not have an answer to the conundrum of one person’s free speech impacting on someone else’s, I certainly recognise the inherent irony in asking for someone to self-censor so others can speak up. But there needs to be a balance. While academics should not be punished for sharing their personal opinions on their personal social media (and commenting in haste is a mistake many of us make), they should be cognizant on the impact it has on others. If it is public, they should be civil. Some will disagree with this, but employers should expect some level of professional conduct on public social media channels.

This issue and the King’s research strikes a chord with me personally. A combination of not wanting to be pigeon-holed, as there are so few of us, and a reluctance to debate the issue as it sparks such animosity has meant that I have shied away from discussing my views on Brexit. This might be because I’m a snowflake and I’m not someone who enjoys conflict, but as the King’s survey shows, I’m far from being alone in this.

If there is a place, an institution, a community where students and staff should feel able to express their views it is the university and the wider higher education sector. The chilling effect and free speech more broadly are likely to be a focus for a majority-conservative government. Indeed, we are just a week into this parliament and centre-right think tanks are already calling for a free speech bill. Rather than the government embarking on a policy which could be crude and unwieldy would it not be better if we got our own house in order first and investigated how we enable all staff and students to feel comfortable to share their views?

HEPI’s other work on free speech can be accessed here:


  1. “A combination of not wanting to be pigeon-holed, as there are so few of us, and a reluctance to debate the issue as it sparks such animosity has meant that I have shied away from discussing my views on Brexit.” I agree. It is a melancholy fact that the failure to give a lead in the promotion and to publicly defend free speech by leadership at British universities has served us all poorly. This failure has been especially catastrophic in the just concluded Brexit general election – in which pertinent issues were allowed to pass without meaningful debate. Apart from a landslide Conservative Party win, we are no further to resolving many of these burning injustices; making us all the poorer for it. It is therefore to be hoped that, now that the general election is behind us, our universities will somehow discover within themselves the gumption to give a lead on free speech. At any rate, this is perhaps the most critical service British universities have to offer, in the furtherance of democracy in these United Kingdoms of Great Britain.

  2. Sarah says:

    I find that in the last few years with each new intake of social sciences students a number of students who identify as Conservative or pro-Brexit (for example) do say that they don’t or won’t feel comfortable expressing their views in class. But this can have nothing to do with their experience at university – they are brand new entrants. I’d suggest that the government and media representation of universities as hotbeds of left wing orthodoxy has far more of a role in creating and perpetuating students’ fears than actual experience.

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