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Bahram Bekhradnia: The White Paper on free speech is intellectually flimsy

  • 17 March 2021
  • By Bahram Bekhradnia

Bahram Bekhradnia founded HEPI in 2002 and was its Director until the end of 2013, since when he has been HEPI’s President. Before establishing HEPI, he was the Director of Policy for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Last month the Government produced a White Paper on free speech and academic freedom in higher education. This had not been preceded by any consultation, but followed a promise in the Conservative party manifesto to ‘strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities’.

The case for intervention

The White Paper explains the problem that it seeks to address, claiming that for everyone whose story (of censorship and suppression of free speech) is known, there is evidence that ‘there are many more who have felt they had to keep silent, withheld research, or believe they have faced active discrimination in appointment or promotion because of views they have expressed’.

Despite reference to ‘evidence’ these sweeping assertions are made primarily on the basis of a small number of anecdotes, press reports and unspecified concerns.

The only references, apart from two mentions of a survey from King’s College London (which incidentally found that only a tiny minority of students thought there was a problem of freedom of speech in universities and that students were much more concerned about freedom of speech in society more generally – not mentioned in the White Paper), were to Policy Exchange – a partisan think tank with a clear political agenda that mirrors that of the Government – and ADF International. ADF international is an American pro life, anti-LGBT, ‘hate group’ with close ties to the Trump administration reported by openDemocracy to have spent more than £410,000 in the UK since 2017 on promoting its agenda.

There are other US influences – suggested by the alternation between the proper spelling of ‘behaviour’ and the American way, together with the reference to the ‘Chicago Principles, developed by the University of Chicago’.

The White Paper does make a further reference – to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, from which it quotes selectively to make it appear that that committee concluded that the situation was one which needed intervention. The JCHR’s main conclusion was in fact that there was ‘no wholesale censorship of debate’ in British universities. The White Paper does not acknowledge that conclusion. And, extraordinarily, it reaches the self-serving conclusion that the fact that the Office for Students (OfS) has taken little action against universities is evidence that further measures are required, rather than the more obvious conclusion that there has been little reason for intervention.

Of course, the question of free speech in higher education is important – alongside academic freedom it is at the heart of the higher education ideology. And of course there have always been people who seek to censor views that they find offensive or with which they disagree. But the White Paper claims that things have got worse – in fact they have got so bad that they require new legislation. It provides no evidence for this supposedly worsening situation – the Secretary of State is of course too young to remember the Garden House Hotel riots in Cambridge in 1970. The question of ‘Snowflakes’ and people wishing to suppress the expression of views that they find ‘hurtful’ does indeed appear to be relatively new, and I suspect that it may be increasing. I have no evidence that that is the case, but I have a suspicion that it may be. But although the White Paper is absolutely correct to say that there is no right not to be offended, there is absolutely no evidence either that free speech has been threatened because of any such increase – certainly people object and protest about views they may find hurtful, but that is not evidence that free speech has been threatened. The tabloid press is capable of making a headline out of anything, and the Secretary of State is clearly capable of seizing on incidents that are now publicised that may not once have been, of claiming this is evidence of things getting worse and making them into a policy issue and the subject of legislation.

The final concern that the White Paper claims needs to be addressed is that of people – generally people with right wing and Brexit supporting views – who feel marginalised and insecure about expressing their opinions in the university environment. It is true that in an environment where the large majority hold a view opposed to one’s own, it can take courage to insist on those views. When was it otherwise? That may have something to do with the suppression of free speech and an atmosphere of intimidation, but I doubt it (and anyway, what steps would a free speech Czar be able to impose on a university in order to make such people feel comfortable about expressing those views?). It is more likely that their reticence is due to the fact that they may feel intellectually insecure about their views. More likely even is that it is about character and personality, not about a systemic suppression of free speech. Many people find it difficult to articulate minority views. It is a matter of confidence, not an absence of free speech. That is nothing new.

Undoubtedly there are people who would wish to suppress free speech and there always have been. A recent example is provided by Ken Loach’s experience, who was due to speak at Oxford, and whose appearance supporters of Israel wished to suppress. The White Paper does not quote that example, but instead quotes the example of SOAS, when Jewish societies invited speakers of whom other students did not approve– mirroring the earlier case of Jewish societies at the same university attempting to have cancelled the appearance of Palestinian speakers. Such attempts at curtailment of free speech are not new, but they have not succeeded in the past and there is no reason to think that further measures – certainly not legislation – are needed to prevent them from succeeding in the future.

The Government’s proposals.

The main proposal appears to be the appointment of a free speech Czar.

Even if there was a case for some form of government intervention, the idea of a free speech Czar cannot have been thought through. What would such a person do with their time? The creation of such a post would very likely encourage people with an agenda of their own to appeal to him/her, and the Czar themselves – certainly if the position is to be full-time – will surely look around for things to do and probably make a not too bad situation appear bad. And to put that post within the Office for Students, as the widening participation Czar has been put, will simply encourage the OfS, whose modus operandi is to wag its finger and make threats to universities and has shown itself to be no friend of academic autonomy, to interfere even more in their running. It hardly seems the appropriate body to police free speech and academic freedom in universities.

The White Paper proposes that there should be some exceptions to a requirement to promote free speech, and specifically mentions hate speech. Well, perhaps. I hate hate speech as much as anyone else. But it is not clear what purpose would be served by excluding hate speech, which is likely almost always to be covered by existing legislation. The worrying problem will be how to define hate speech. Sounding off about Saudi Arabia and its behaviour is unlikely to be counted as hate speech. Sounding off about Islamic terrorism is unlikely to be counted as hate speech either, despite the easy transition from that to Islamophobia. But if Williamson, who is trying to insist on universities adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, has his way, then sounding off about Israel and the settlements, let alone the way that Israel was created, could well be counted as hate speech and proscribed. But in any case, as I have said, most hate speech proper is covered by existing legislation, as are calls to terrorism and other unlawful behaviour. There seems little need for such an exemption which potentially provides additional powers to ministers to rule on what should and should not be permitted to be said.

Conclusion

This is a rushed and unnecessary White Paper, intellectually flimsy, badly thought out and poorly argued with little evidence to support its conclusions. It is full of typos (for example somebody forgot to superscript the footnote numbers), and its inconsistent – Anglo-American – spelling betrays the influence on its thinking, if not its drafting, of the American far right. There is speculation about a summer reshuffle, and if there is a new Secretary of State, as many hope, then he or she will have much more pressing business to attend to. In any case, the culture wars to which this White Paper contributes, imported from Trump and his allies on the libertarian right in the USA, will be seen to be more and more passé as the Trump administration recedes into political irrelevance. God knows there are enough pressing and real issues facing higher education in this country to which the Education Department and its Secretary of State should be focusing their attention instead of diverting attention with fabricated issues. And if indeed there is a nut to be cracked, it certainly does not need this sledgehammer with which to crack it.

It is ironic that the Government should be promoting itself as a supporter of free speech and academic freedom, considering the lengths to which its supporters are going to curtail free enquiry when it comes to Britain’s colonial past – manifested by the witchhunt of the Leicester University professor and of the National Trust who have been researching precisely that, and whose activities the Charity Commissioners – despite pressure from the Government’s allies – have found were not in any way improper. And it is ironic too that this White Paper should have arrived at the very time that the Home Office is advancing serious legislative proposals to cramp the right to protest and give repressive powers to the police.

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