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People want free speech to thrive at universities … just not for racists, Holocaust deniers or advocates of religious violence

  • 17 May 2021
  • By Richard Brabner

As part of forthcoming work in partnership with the Higher Education Policy Institute, the UPP Foundation commissioned detailed polling from Public First on public attitudes towards various elements of higher education.

Given the current interest in free speech issues, we are releasing an excerpt of this polling today – ahead of the full results being published in a few weeks’ time. 

Richard Brabner, the Director of the UPP Foundation, said:

These results show there are lessons for all sides in this debate. Free speech is popular. On a range of different contentious issues, the public – including 18-24 year olds and across political boundaries – support allowing controversial speakers on campus, even if they don’t agree with their views.

But equally, those pushing for a blanket protection for free speech should be under no illusion. The public does not approve of a libertarian free for all. When it comes to racist speakers and Holocaust deniers the public do not want them anywhere near our universities.

In media discussions over the past week around the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, the Government have found themselves in some difficulty when faced with hypothetical situations and, specifically, on the right of Holocaust deniers to speak on campus. 

This example illustrates some of the concerns which many in the higher education sector have about the forthcoming legislation. The Government has made no secret of its desire to campaign on issues of free speech and against ‘cancel culture’ broadly, including in higher education – and it is reasonable to believe they think this approach chimes with the public and particularly with Conservative voters.

The polling of over 2,000 adults shows that, in principle, the public is in favour of free speech. When asked, a majority of people say that people should be allowed to speak to students at university so long as their views are not illegal (55%). A more libertarian perspective, where nobody is prevented from speaking to students because of their opinions is less popular, with only around a quarter (24%) of the public supportive of this position.

People’s views change dramatically when faced with different scenarios of controversial speakers. Our polling offered ten plausible scenarios of speakers (many – if not all – of which would be widely considered to be controversial).

When asked, based purely on that one piece of information whether in principle such a person ‘should be allowed to speak at a university’, ‘should not’, or ‘don’t know’, people’s opinions range from a net 56% in favour through to a net -49%. It is worth emphasising that between 13% and 22% of respondents answered ‘don’t know’ to the scenarios, showing either the complexity of the issue or an unwillingness to give an opinion. 

From the scenarios in our polling, the principle of allowing a Holocaust denier the right to speak at university is one of the least supported, with a net percentage of -26% thinking they should be allowed to speak (29% ‘should’, 55% ‘should not’, 16% ‘don’t know’). So the Government’s clarifications at the end of the week that Holocaust deniers will ‘never, never, never‘ be protected by the new legislation will be welcome news to much of the public. 

The following charts look at people’s responses by different cross breaks. For each one, we’ve presented a net score – that is, those who said such a person should speak, less those who said a person should not speak. We have excluded ‘Don’t Knows’ from the charts for ease of visibility – but again, it is worth noting that on these, around 10% to 25% of people say don’t know.

There are some differences by (self-identified) political opinion. Conservative voters are more likely to be supportive of free speech for six of the issues, with Labour voters being more supportive of four of them. There are large differences between major party voters on the questions of promoting the Empire, campaigning for reduced immigration levels (although both of these record substantial positive NET scores from Labour and Conservative voters), trans issues and gay marriage. 

We can explore this further using self-defined political positions without reference to party labels. Naturally, people’s self-identification on these scales will only be so accurate, however the results indicate that people’s perceptions of who should be able to speak are linked with the content of what the individual believes rather than simply a general commitment to ‘freedom of speech’.

Younger people are more in favour of letting some people speak than older ones (particularly around crime, and communism and Trump supporters). But they are less supportive than older people of someone’s right to speak if they promote a positive role of the empire, are against gay marriage or don’t believe trans women are women (although in each of those cases, there are net positives within all age groups).

When split by gender, we can see that men are consistently more pro free speech than women. Across all ten of the examples, men are more likely to want the speaker to speak (though, net, they are also against allowing Holocaust deniers, jihadi advocates and racists to speak).

There are limited patterns by socio economic status. AB voters tend to be more pro free speech than DE voters, but on every issue apart from communism, the differences are moderate.

When looking at the responses of graduates versus non-graduates, we find that graduates are more pro free speech than non-graduates on 8 of our 10 examples – with non-graduates being more supportive of speakers defending the Empire and (more narrowly) calling for restrictions on immigration.

Finally, returning to the issue that caused so much discussion last week, of Holocaust denial, we can see by bringing all crossbreaks together that it is one of a small number of examples where every group and subgroup has more support for banning such speakers than for letting them speak.

Overall, there are major lessons for both sides of the debate. It is clear that a blanket call in favour of free speech is likely to find popular support. But the real finding is that people will respond very differently depending on the circumstances of the speaker in question. 

For those who may think any controversial issue is problematic and that discussion should be constrained, it is worth noting that self-identified Labour voters and liberals are net in favour of seven out of these 10 speakers giving remarks on campuses – including those that promote the Empire and those who oppose trans rights. Similarly, young voters (aged 18 to 24) are net in favour of seven scenarios (with Holocaust denial being one of three in which they – as with every other age cohort – express net support for a ban). 

The risk for the Government and those pushing for further free speech protections is that – as has happened this week – specific examples can quickly find their coalition of supporters falling apart, with Conservative voters in 2019, those on the Right, and older people, all liable to be less supportive of someone’s right to speak at university depending on the nature of their views expressed.

Notes for Editors

On behalf of the UPP Foundation and HEPI, Public First ran a poll of 2,011 adults in England between 4 and 7 February 2021. These results are part of a broader survey on public attitudes towards higher education. The UPP Foundation and HEPI plan on publishing a joint report analysing the full results of the polling in coming weeks but, given the announcement in the Queen’s Speech, the UPP Foundation and HEPI have published the results pertaining to free speech to help inform the current debate. All results, especially those showing sub-groups of respondents will be subject to a margin of error.

1 comment

  1. Kevin Kingsbury says:

    … and some wonder why our universities are failing to educate

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