Just as subtext was preparing to go to press, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP fired a culture war salvo that we felt merited further discussion.
No doubt eager to divert focus from their contributions to our highest-in-Europe COVID death tally, the government has announced plans to install a national
free speech champion with the power to fine universities (and students’ unions) who they believe to have infringed on academic freedom and freedom of speech. This is part of a raft of other measures proposed by the Education Secretary in response to
unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses. Supporters and detractors were quick to voice their thoughts along largely predictable political lines. More at the BBC here:
As with many hot-button political topics lately, worries about freedom of speech (particularly on campus) appear to be largely imported from the US context which is, as ever, many years and degrees of intensity ahead of us. Crucially, though, it also has a very different legal environment to the UK, which will stymie any attempt to transplant political debates verbatim, as this proposal ably demonstrates.
Lacking the concreteness of the first amendment, defining just what
free speech means in the UK is a more slippery prospect. At the pointiest end of the wedge are proscribed terrorist organisations (National Action, al-Qaida, etc.), for whom it is a criminal offence to profess to belong to, to express support for or to arrange a meeting in support of — presumably this will remain outside the remit of the free speech champion.
At the broader end of the wedge is the UK’s (very un-US, very European) landscape of hate crimes and, more importantly, hate incidents — otherwise non-criminal actions that are alleged to have been motivated by hate, which may be recorded as such and which the police may choose to follow-up on. One supportive voice in the BBC article —
an Oxford University academic who previously had an invitation to a conference celebrating women withdrawn over her stance on transgender rights issues — could still be liable to find her comments fall afoul of current hate legislation if perceived to do so by others, no matter how protected the underlying act of speech may be. It’s not clear how the proposed measures would address this.
And, finally, outside of the wedge entirely, are those speakers who will test the government’s proposed commitment to freedom of speech to its absolute limits. Older readers may remember groups such as the Paedophile Information Exchange, whose founder (and Lancaster alumnus) Tom O’Carroll advocated
for the age of consent to be lowered to four.
On a very different note, there is the arrest of photographer Andy Aitchison on 28 January for documenting a protest outside a controversial refugee detention centre in Kent, and the well-publicised case of the Stansted 15 (see subtext 184) — the latter group may have just been vindicated on appeal, but how certain are we that this government (or any other) is interested in protecting all points of view in equal measure?
None of this is to say that this could not be a laudable initiative, only that it is a more nuanced one than adopted US-centric political talking points let on. There are indeed threats to freedom of speech, and many of them stand outwith the hoary left-right divide. Confucius Institutes are prevalent across the UK higher education landscape, for example, and not without controversy; as Chinese government-funded tools, would they welcome robust discussion on that same government’s alleged crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and elsewhere? Will the risk of finding themselves financially on the hook for hosting such attitudes turn UK universities away from the promise of lucrative foreign investment? And how about actions that indirectly inhibit freedom of speech by limiting opportunities for open discourse, such as Lancaster University’s abolishment of the University Court (see subtexts passim) or overuse of
commercial in confidence’ (see subtexts equally passim)?
subtext expects that nobody wishes to see the emboldening of groups like Lancaster’s (seemingly-now-defunct) Traditionalist Society (see subtext Annual Review 2017–18) to populate the airwaves at the expense of the security and safety of others, though we fear that, mishandled, this may well be the result of these measures. We’ll do our best to keep you updated.