Free Speech

Campus protestors are being silenced—where are the ‘free speech’ defenders now?

The principle of robust and open debate does not seem to apply when it comes to demonstrations about Gaza. University chiefs are terrified—but they must support the right to offend

May 10, 2024
Image: Alamy / Prospect
Image: Alamy / Prospect

Before writing about campus protests over Gaza, I thought it would be good to speak to some actual protestors. So I popped round to University College London, where there is a modest encampment. It was a sunny evening and the sit-in looked peaceful enough. But more I cannot say as I was politely ejected from the university grounds.

The “Campus Experience Team”—which was what Russell Group universities call, in effect, bouncers—were polite but firm. The protestors were but a few yards away, but the bouncers’ orders were to send any journalists packing.  

I googled the current £375k-a-year provost, Dr Michael Spence, and found his PR flacks had tweeted something he’d said only last August about “the need to disagree well and to approach any discussions with openness and a willingness to listen carefully.”

I googled the university’s website: “We are a diverse community with the freedom and courage to challenge, to question and to think differently.”

Hear, hear to that. In fact, this venerable university decided it lacked the courage to allow me to listen carefully to its students. So after an hour or so waiting to see if the head of the 10-strong media relations team would relent—he didn’t—I cycled round the corner to the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas).

Soas, in contrast to UCL, was welcoming and open. It’s a small and amiable enough protest. The protestors’ four demands, scrawled on a placard, are: disclosure of university investments; divestment from certain Israeli companies; a termination of banking arrangements with Barclays; and a boycott of certain Israeli academic institutions.

I’m sure we might all agree, or disagree, well about these proposals… if allowed to have the “freedom and courage” to have that conversation.

The truth is that university chiefs around the world are currently terrified. They have witnessed the decapitation of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Harvard and decided they don’t want to be next for the guillotine. And they are not only out to save their own skins. They have seen big-buck mega-donors threatening to indulge in their own form of divestment: stop the protests or we stop the cash.

It seems such a short time ago that the government was so worried about free speech on university campuses that they pushed through a new law guaranteeing it. And appointed a free speech tzar, Prof Arif Ahmed, to enforce it.

You’ll remember the general tone of much of the debate at the time. We had bred a generation of snowflake students who were constantly whining about the right not to be offended or triggered by hurtful remarks. They should get over their demands for “safe spaces” and, in common parlance, grow some.

Prof Ahmed was the poster boy for a more robust attitude to championing free speech. “It is essential that we learn to tolerate views, and the expression of views, that we might find wrong-headed and even appalling,” he said in an inaugural speech three days after the 7th October massacre in Israel.

It’s a good speech. “The freedom to offend is a fundamental right,” he affirmed. “Any disagreement over political or social questions that actually matters to people is likely to cause some of them to feel offence.” He referenced the Civil Rights movement. Thousands of black Americans were arrested or imprisoned in the 1960s for speech protesting against racial segregation. But they were right.

“Words are not a kind of violence,” he concluded. “They are the alternative to violence; and if we as a society forget this then we as a society are finished.” Couldn’t be clearer.

Six months later many of the noisiest defenders of free speech have fallen a bit silent. They take offence at some of the placards and chants that a minority of protestors have used and are, frankly, not going to tolerate them. They suddenly see the point of “safe spaces” for those who might feel triggered or threatened. They cheer on the riot police as they charge onto American campuses. They ridicule the very idea of protest. Vietnam, apartheid, civil rights—as if campus protests changed anything, ever. Nobody cares what you do or think. Get back to work.

Where is Prof Ahmed now? He is reported as saying that he would not pronounce on whether terms such as “global intifada” or slogans such as “from the river to the sea” are protected by the new legislation.

“I’d be reluctant to say any particular phrase is always going to be acceptable or always not, because with many of these things it’s going to depend on a variety of factors,” he told the Guardian in December. “I’m definitely not going to say: ‘oh you can always say something or you can never say something’, for that reason.”

That makes sense, though in time people may wonder what the point of the £100k-a-year role is. Context is all, and difficult decisions will need to be made on a daily, if not hourly basis by university administrators and police commanders. It’s a funny old world when the Metropolitan Police chief, Mark Rowley, seems to have a better grasp of the complicated context of free speech than some university panjandrums, or the populist MPs calling for his head.

We might all wish for an exquisitely balanced protest. It would acknowledge Israel’s right to defend itself while deploring the number of civilian casualties. It would call for the release of hostages while condemning the IDF’s aggressive tactics. It would find a way of endorsing Israel’s right to exist while distancing itself from the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. It would find a way of footnoting “from the river to the sea” with a similar sentiment from the mouth of Benjamin Netanyahu. It might offend, but not tip over into anything that could be experienced as harassment.

But that’s a university seminar, not a slogan on a campus placard. The civil rights movement, praised by Prof Ahmed, understood that. In his famous letter from Birmingham Jail 60 years ago Martin Luther King put it thus: “You may well ask, ‘Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

I wasn’t allowed to speak to the UCL demonstrators: their freedom to explain their reasons for protesting was curtailed by their own university. But I’m guessing that, if allowed to speak, they might use words similar to Dr King’s: they’re out to dramatise the bloodshed in Gaza so that it can no longer be ignored.