Can it really be such a bad thing that students are engaged in questions of power?by Marta Santiváñez and Emma Yeomans / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
The British reporter Michela Wrong has made a career from telling inconvenient truths. Her 2005 book I Didn’t Do It for You narrated the story of Eritrea’s bumpy journey towards independence, among an international community that apparently couldn’t care less. In 2009, It’s Our Turn to Eat turned an unsparing eye on corruption in present-day Kenya. Neither book can be bought in the countries they depict. It’s not that they’re banned as such—it’s just that, as she explained recently, “no bookseller will sell them.”
In a place like Eritrea, which has been called the world’s biggest prison because of its human rights record, having limits placed on your intellectual freedom is no great surprise—perhaps even a source of pride. By contrast, the University of Bristol is not somewhere that Wrong expected to confront issues of free speech. In November 2017, however, she was invited to address a student society there, only to find out that the organisation was required to fill out a background check, confirming that she conformed with the university’s “safe space” policies.
Wrong turned the invitation down. She explained in a letter—subsequently published—that she took “exception to the entire notion of ‘safe spaces’ and the practice of ‘no-platforming.’” “I am more aware than most of the way such policies distort our understanding of the world and silence informed debate,” she wrote. “Why on earth would I endorse that system at home?”
Barely a month goes by without headlines about assaults on freedom of speech in universities. The issue has been particularly volatile in the United States, where students have protested vociferously about everything from talks by white nationalists to “cultural appropriation” (over insufficiently “authentic” Asian cuisine at Oberlin College in Ohio). Criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement in a campus newspaper at Wesleyan University in Connecticut sparked a campaign to withdraw its funding.
Events by right-wing provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos have been particular flash points. His planned appearance last year at the University of California in Berkeley was cancelled after it ran into demonstrations, prompting the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump to scream “NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” on Twitter, in supposed defence of free speech.
Trump had his own reasons for stirring things up, of course, but in Gallup polling last autumn—reported in the Economist—some 42 per cent of students at Yale said they felt “uncomfortable” sharing opinions on politics, race, religion and gender.
In British universities, similar issues have ignited controversy—though it isn’t always clear that free speech has actually been compromised. As often as not, the highest-profile flare-ups have concerned bust-ups among figures who would generally be thought of as on the left. In October 2015, a lecture on women and power by Germaine Greer at Cardiff University provoked a student petition calling for the invitation to be withdrawn because of Greer’s supposedly “transphobic” views.
Even so—and although Greer called the university’s defence of her right to speak “weak as piss”—the lecture went ahead. A few months later, Hope not Hate’s Nick Lowles announced that he had been “blocked” from appearing at Canterbury Christ Church by NUS Black Students, a “politically autonomous” grouping of the NUS, who accused him of Islamophobia. (Lowles denied the charge, which was dismissed by NUS high command, and the event went ahead without him.)
Early this year, the libertarian online magazine Spiked published the fourth instalment of its annual Free Speech University Rankings, which suggested that over half the 115 universities and colleges surveyed “actively censor speech and ideas.” Spiked’s analysis is dubious—among other examples, it describes anti-bullying policies and sexual-harassment prevention as “violating free speech”—but it has nonetheless been seen as a sign that intellectual freedom is under threat as never before.
Read Peter Tatchell on what it feels like to be on the frontline of free speech
The British government is alarmed, or at the very least it claims to be. Last autumn, a consultation on the sector’s newly created regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), identified the protection of free speech as one of its key duties. Just after Christmas, the then-universities minister Jo Johnson waded in, criticising “no-platforming” on campuses and suggesting that universities who fail to uphold free speech should be fined.
A row then ensued after the appointment to the OfS of the journalist Toby Young; after a back-catalogue of sexist and offensive remarks that he had made in the past came to light, he withdrew.
The battle lines seem almost cartoonish: on the one hand, serial controversialists propagating views too offensive to be aired, who then claim to be “offended” when they are told those views aren’t welcome; on the other, millennial “snowflakes” who can’t handle any level of criticism or controversy.
What’s really going on? Is free speech genuinely under siege in British universities, and if so from whom? And if it is—what can be done?
Wrong, for one, thinks there are real concerns here. Though she is adamant that she doesn’t see an existential threat to free speech in the UK—she never felt in danger of being prevented from speaking at Bristol—it was the principle, she explained recently. “I had a flash of anger and thought, ‘I’m not going to play this game.’ I get enough of this in my working professional life in Africa. I’m not going to accept it in Britain, when the one good thing about being based in Britain is that I can speak my mind.”
More than this, she added, by being shielded from hearing controversial or contentious views, she worries that students aren’t being prepared for what life is like outside. “Young people are about to go into the real world, and have been wrapped in cotton wool during their university years,” she said. “The idea that you can condone every single speaker and vet them—that strikes me as a very worrying assumption.”
Though she has sympathy with some of the issues raised by student activists, Wrong expressed worries about where this left the wider political culture in universities. “It would be sad if they got the impression that the rest of the world cares deeply about the issues provoking campus fury,” she said. “It rarely does.”
Amatey Doku, vice-president for higher education at the NUS, sees things quite differently. When we spoke, he mounted a stout defence of the union’s no-platform policy, and was also keen to bust what he sees as myths around buzzwords such as “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”
One difficulty with making sense of this dispute is that distinct concepts often get muddled.
Trigger warnings are reasonably simple: they might be employed by a lecturer, alerting students that material that deals with—say—violence or rape could be distressing. There is no suggestion that “triggering” material shouldn’t be taught; the aim is simply to alert students beforehand, the equivalent of a film age rating or a warning about graphic images on the news. It’s hard to see real issues of free speech here.
“Safe spaces” are more problematic, not least because everyone appears to have their own interpretation of what they are. The concept originated in the US as long ago as the 1960s—an attempt to create gatherings where marginalised or disempowered groups felt free to share their experiences. More recently, it has come to encompass any environment designed to make sure there will be no harassment or intimidation.
Safe spaces have become more of a feature of life on campus, not just in the US but in the UK too: for the last couple of years, King’s College London has employed “Safe Space Marshals” to monitor events.
Even parliament has a safe-space policy of a sort
Doku defines a “safe space” as one in which “we collectively work out how to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, can engage.” As an example, he offered the NUS National Conference, which limits applause because it causes problems for students with hearing difficulties.
“It’s much more about opening up free speech than about shutting it down. But it’s completely misconstrued and lumped in with this ‘generation snowflake’ idea, which is unhelpful.”
Even parliament has a safe-space policy of a sort, he added. “They say things are ‘unparliamentary.’ What does that mean? It means there are conventions and ways of engaging within a space, where we say, ‘This is an appropriate way to behave.’”
No-platforming seems more incendiary but again it, too, has a long history. Doku pointed out that the NUS no-platforming policy, which dates all the way back to 1974, is targeted at groups who have track records of silencing minority groups.
While unions at individual universities can make their own decisions, only six groups are banned by the NUS at national level. Three of these are far-right outfits: the British National Party, the English Defence League and National Action. Restrictions on free speech are nothing new where racism is concerned: the incitement to racial hatred was first criminalised in 1976.
The NUS, furthermore, is keen to make clear that no-platforming such people doesn’t contravene free speech protection under human rights law, nor the duty on universities to uphold “freedom of speech within the law,” under the Education Act (No 2) 1986.
That is true, although critics would counter that this is because a student union is not a public authority or a university, and so is not covered by such laws.
The other three groups on the national NUS banned list are all Islamists of various stripes: Al-Muhajiroun, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. The government itself has outlawed the first of these groups, and repeatedly flirted with banning the second.
If free speech is really in danger, it’s on the government
Which creates an irony: if free speech really is in danger on campus, its source isn’t over-sensitive students or crusading unions but the very government that claims it wants to defend freedom of expression. Several people we spoke to worried a great deal about the Prevent strategy, which dates from 2003 under the Blair administration, and was expanded by the coalition government in 2011.
It requires schools, universities, youth groups and other organisations to help identify people in danger of being radicalised and report them to the authorities. In 2015 and 2016, roughly 7,500 such referrals were made, and action was taken in about 10 per cent of cases.
Despite the relatively low numbers, many teachers and students fear the result has been a climate of fear, in which talking about issues such as Islamist extremism or the conflict in Syria can result in university staff reporting their own students—or students censoring themselves because they are too frightened to speak out.
The NUS has campaigned extensively against Prevent. The objection, argues Doku, is not with the ends of challenging extremism, but because of the dangerous precedent it sets. Prevent “leaves it to the imagination of whoever is implementing it to decide what is and isn’t contravening British values,” an invitation for them to apply their own “internal biases.”
Alexej Ulbricht, who teaches political theory at SOAS, expressed concern that Prevent really could compromise free thinking. One of his classes is on religion and world politics; Islam and the impact of Islamic State is extensively examined. “We need to understand why certain groups think the way they do, which does not mean to sympathise, but to understand,” he said.
Now, however, he finds himself advising students to avoid looking up potentially controversial documents on their personal computers in case they get in trouble with the authorities. The danger is there for all students, he says, but Muslims may be “more targetable.”
Dealing with the cut-and-thrust of all these conflicts in practice is Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell, at the University of Sussex. His university hit the headlines last October, when a newly formed Free Speech Society ran into difficulties—either ironically or deliberately, depending on your view—with its very first event, a talk by Bill Etheridge, the Ukip MEP.
It was reported that the student union demanded to vet Etheridge’s speech beforehand. Although the university sided with the union, the talk would still have gone ahead, Tickell explained: “nobody was trying to stop him from coming.” As it happened, the society itself then cancelled the event. It’s hard to resist the theory that the whole farrago was some kind of stunt.
“Nobody was trying to stop him from coming”
Far from running scared, universities like Sussex have established procedures to ensure as many talks by external speakers as possible go ahead. Organisers must consider whether an event might contain extremist content or provoke protests (that for the vast majority of talks, the answer is no). If there are concerns that can’t be resolved by departments or the Student Union, they are brought to a special panel. Final decisions rest with a deputy vice-chancellor.
For controversial talks, security staff might manage protests, or ensure that a controversial speaker is balanced by opposing voices, rather than appearing alone.
Tickell is proud that, under this system, a talk has never been stopped. “I don’t want to say everything is perfect, but it isn’t working badly,” he said, adding: “It is far better for people to come and be confronted over their views than feeling they are being oppressed.”
But for Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent and the leading intellectual light behind Spiked magazine, such processes hardly reassure. Arguing that anybody should be free to speak on what they like wherever they like, he sees the very existence of no-platform policies and protocols as a symptom of a university culture that doesn’t value free thinking.
Furedi is scornful of the need to be “protected or immunised”; simply because an idea isn’t voiced on campus, he suggested, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Without “critical engagement,” indeed, bad ideas may even flourish.
One of Furedi’s anxieties is that university politics has become far too personalised—too much about who is speaking, rather than what is being said. “Increasingly, young people have been educated to believe that it’s almost impossible to separate the ideas you express from yourself… That’s why you get this outrage about being offended, being triggered, being made uncomfortable.”
While the idea of the personal being political is not new but long familiar in feminism, it has acquired new political power—a galvanising or chilling one, depending on your view. Although the slogan “check your privilege” has been much abused, the anxiety it articulates (being aware of why you might not have much right to speak on a particular topic) is felt keenly by many students. At Goldsmiths University in 2015, student union officer Bahar Mustafa caused a race row worthy of its own Wikipedia page for organising events where both white people and men were banned.
A (white, male) writer in the student magazine offered this justification: in discussions of racist misogyny, a white man is “as useful as a childless person at a group session for single parents.” While the likes of Furedi will no doubt find such conclusions appalling, others protest that—in the days before privileges were checked—it was always the same old, white, male and well-to-do voices that dominated every debate.
One thing is indisputable: the discussion about student debates is nowhere near done. A parliamentary joint inquiry into free speech in universities, focusing both on student unions and Prevent, is due to report later this year.
In April, the OfS will begin regulating universities, and has a duty—even if hazy and ill-defined—to guarantee free speech. Although Young will no longer be on its board, the OfS is still likely to stir up plenty of argument.
Despite the battle lines, it’s striking how people who work or study in modern universities—rather than who opine on them from vague memories of what it was like back in their day—are aware of how complex the whole question is. They deal with the dilemmas of the debate every day: the fraught, ongoing balancing act of ensuring freedom of speech for everyone, not just those with privilege or status.
Can it really be a bad thing that students are engaged and interested in power and how it works? Whatever the terms of the discussion, perhaps the most important thing is that we are having it at all.