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Freedom of Speech: is it all academic?

  • 6 July 2023
  • By Adam Dawkins
  • This HEPI blog was kindly written by Dr Adam Dawkins, University Secretary at the University of York.

In May 2023, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 came into being after two years of parliamentary debate, media and think tank speculation, and a large serving of consternation from within HE. However, the Act crossed the legislative finishing line largely intact, and the baton (or chalice) is now passed to the Office for Students (OfS) to consult on giving it regulatory force. This blog focusses on freedom of expression at, and around, controversial events involving external speakers on campus.

It argues that academic staff expertise should inform national and institutional policy and practice in this arena. Amplifying the academic voice to inform such evaluations provides an antidote to the caricatural representation of academics as mere mouthpieces for cultural socialism, or its tabloid shorthand – ‘wokeness’. It might also challenge the view that most academic staff are uncritical proponents of leftism, complicit in creating a state of Lackademia, where conservative and right-leaning views are marginalised, to coin a term from the title of a 2017 report.

Upholding free speech in universities can be challenging because they are sites of critical enquiry, not in spite of this. As institutions populated with social and political scientists and scholars in philosophy, intellectual history, human rights, feminisms and queer theory, contentious views should be expressed and debated.

Academic knowledge has the scope to help interpret, mediate, and therefore re-solve contentious free speech cases, because such knowledge is based on existing theoretical frameworks. The work of political theorist Chantal Mouffe is one example, in arguing that the democratic ideal of achieving consensus in public discourse is unrealistic. Instead, Mouffe advocates for  agonistic pluralism (1999), with its premise that debate contains a ‘conflictual dimension’ (p.752).This approach is appealing when applied to free speech challenges. The appeal of agonism is accepting the inevitability and productivity of conflict between disagreeing parties, which need not default to antagonism, as witnessed in polarised debates on gender-critical feminism and its tensions with trans rights, or pro-Palestine positions and antisemitism.

How might academic voices be amplified around free speech? Universities’ codes of practices on external speakers and events provide part of the answer. Whilst the Joint Committee on Human Rights  cite limited evidence of widespread free speech suppression on campus, overly bureaucratic policies and codes were identified. HEPI’s Cracking the Code Report (2018) sampled   policy and procedures of 20 UK universities, and found some evidence of complex, lengthy, disparate and inaccessible documents.I have revisited the same sample for this blog. The authority and decision-making of senior professional services staff is unequivocal. In each code, decision-making is delegated from the governing body, as the statutory locus of accountability for ensuring free speech and academic freedom, to the Registrar and/or Secretary or Chief Operating Officer. In a few cases, a senior management member with an academic leadership portfolio assumed this responsibility, such as a Pro Vice-Chancellor or the Provost.

Each sampled code and procedure refer to the risk assessment and due diligence of external speakers presenting on contentious subjects. However, most do not signpost the role of any of risk assessment panel or group. This may be intentional, to avoid prescription and be responsive and flexible when convening colleagues to make judgments on proposed speakers and events escalated to the centre. Decision-making or advisory groups include Sussex’s External Speakers’ Panel (ESP) and Winchester’s Approving Officer Team (AoT). More formally, Edinburgh has a University Compliance Group which has a wider assurance remit, but considers complex free speech cases.  

References to academics in the process of events and speaker risk assessment are scant, although Winchester’s AoT may call on relevant academic colleagues and Edinburgh’s Compliance Group includes sub-executive (but still senior) academic membership. Inviting academics would bring subject knowledge of the speakers’ topic or stance, along with insights from managing sensitive debates in the seminar room and lecture theatre. Precedents for such staff representation exist. For example, universities’ own academic safeguarding or counter-terrorism experts sit on university prevent duty steering groups, and academics form the majority membership on university ethics committees. This would supplement professional services staffs’ deep understanding of safety and security, student wellbeing and legal and communications considerations to facilitate contentious events proceeding.

Academic and professional staff partnership might foster increased understanding and acceptance of the reasons why controversial and sensitive events should go ahead. This relationship could signal a shift in emphasis from the risk assessment of contentious events and speakers (and any perception that this equates to institutional risk aversion) to risk awareness (Scott-Bauman and Perfect, 2021:7).

Recommendations supporting an academically informed approach to free speech policy are that:

  1. academic expertise informs sector and institutional free speech charters. This presumes that teaching and research by academics exercising their academic freedom, is for the most part balanced and encourage diversity of viewpoints;
  2. academic communities are proactively engaged in future revisions to institutions’ free speech and academic freedom policies and codes of practice;
  3.  the challenges, rights and responsibilities arising from exercising free speech and academic freedom feature regularly on and across senate/academic board and governing body agenda; and
  4. free speech codes and policies more systematically codify and provide for academic staff with relevant subject-specific specialisms to be invited to inform, or be members of, risk assessment panels/meetings for contentious events.

The Office for Students has recently appointed its inaugural Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom from academia. The appointee is encouraged to convene a reference group or advisory panel, comprising staff drawn from universities’ academic and professional services staff. This may help create an effective ombudsman role, rather than a perfunctory complaints function.

The recommendations might appear idealistic, given high-profile cases of academics being deplatformed, facing detriment to their career and reputation, or worse. However, responding to seemingly intractable free speech challenges demand universities to demonstrate leadership. Key to this is expressing confidence that academic communities, in particular, are more expert and experienced than other institutions of civil society or organs of government in navigating these turbulent waves.

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