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Response to the new announcements on free speech and academic freedom by Dr Arif Ahmed

  • 17 February 2021
  • By Dr Arif Ahmed

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Arif Ahmed, who is a reader at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, where he authored the amendments to the new Statement on Freedom of Speech.

The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, proposes to protect free speech at UK universities by:

  1. strengthening the existing duty on universities to protect it;
  2. giving an independent regulator powers to enforce the duty;
  3. permitting academics to sue employers who fail in the duty; and
  4. publishing guidance on good practice.  

Universities exist to teach students to think for themselves and to pursue truth through free confrontation of the widest possible range of ideas, not to endorse or pursue (let alone enforce) any particular worldview or political stance. We should be delighted that the Government so clearly supports this basic point.

And the proposals should make available to individual staff and students a permanent and forceful defence against university bosses or others who might try, for instance via corporate policies governing speech or conduct, to constrain their research, their speech and even indirectly their thoughts. These proposals deserve a broad welcome.

But is there a problem in the first place? If you doubt it, look at this site, where feminist scholars testify to facing abuse, investigation, or worse, just for raising questions about sex and gender.

One writes: 

I see colleagues explain how a person with short hair must be non-binary (no such thing as a woman with short hair!) and don’t understand how they don’t see how regressive this is. I doubt myself on a regular basis. Is it just me? Am I going mad? I am on a fixed term contract and feel totally helpless to speak out or even question how things are.

Another says: 

We have been asked at [the] University of Manchester to write our preferred pronouns on our email signatures. I really don’t want anyone to define me or even be considering my gender, it feels deeply regressive. I know if I take a stand I will probably get sacked or something. It feels really sinister. 

The UCU calls free speech at universities a non-problem. Does it think these lecturers, and the hundreds like them with similar stories, are all lying or mad? 

Besides that, it takes a startling lack of imagination not to see that these proposals cut both ways. Although every rational person sympathises with his motives, I am (like the UCU) strongly against Gavin Williamson’s requirement that universities adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This ‘definition’ is nothing of the kind; adopting it obstructs perfectly legitimate defence of Palestinian rights. As such it chills free speech on a matter of the first importance. I hope the Secretary of State reconsiders the need for it; but these new free speech duties ought to rule it out in any case. 

So these proposals give valuable support to principles that everyone ought to defend. Of course in practice everything will depend on whether the regulator will use these powers impartially and with vigour. But that is true when the state gives any powers to an independent regulator of anything. Still, it is clear to me that in this case doing so addresses a real problem, and does it in more or less the right way.   

HEPI’s work on free speech issues includes: Free Speech and Censorship on Campus (HEPI Occasional Paper 21, 2019) by Corey Stoughton;  Cracking the code: A practical guide for university free speech policies (HEPI Report 109, 2018) by Diana Beech; and Keeping Schtum?: What students think of free speech by Nick Hillman (HEPI Report 85, 2016).

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