Tag Archives: freedom of speech

Freedom of Peach

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in the BBC article — an Oxford University academic who previously had an invitation to a conference celebrating women withdrawn over her stance on transgender rights issues — could still be liable to find her comments fall afoul of current hate legislation if perceived to do so by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.

subtext 173 – ’empowering your opinion with impartial information’

Fortnightly during term time.

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In this issue: editorial, campus fascists, senate newsflash, campus fools, campus activists, ua92, researchgate fail, buses fail, bomb shelter update, we need you, love poem, shart, concert review, letters.



Back in October, subtext reported on recent incidents of office doors on campus being defaced by swastikas (see subtext 166 and 167). Now, we bring news of a campus ‘alt-right’ would-be society whose members endorse a white Christian Europe and spread tales of Israel chemically castrating immigrants (see lead story below).

Freedom of speech at Lancaster University, although defended by (almost) everyone here, has in recent years been a mostly theoretical debate. There really weren’t significant numbers of people saying things that really caused offence – not openly, anyway. Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on ‘giving a platform to hatred’ were things that happened at other universities. Well, those times seem like they might be over, so we need to start thinking about what we should do when people propagate hate speech – at meetings, in seminars and at public events.

subtext has not seen any evidence that our new alt-righters might be planning or encouraging acts of violence – their style is more to disrupt debate and deliberately be ‘provocative’. It’s quite possible that they are really very desperate for attention and, if we leave them well alone, they’ll soon get bored and go back to retweeting memes about frogs.

So do we give them what they want, and start organising demonstrations? Or do we ignore them? And what will our students’ union do about their application for official society status? Let a student jury decide? Your comments and letters would be most welcome.



In the Management School Hub. A young man obviously very thrilled to have been offered a job at Lancaster University. ‘I am so pleased, fantastic, and they told me I don’t have to wear a suit every day to work but under no circumstances must I ever wear jeans to work’. Obviously not a teaching post then.



In subtext 167, we reported on the ill-advised letter from Chris Heaton-Harris MP, sent to large numbers of Vice-Chancellors asking for all educational materials relating to Brexit, and the academics involved in its teaching. We were unsure at the time whether our own Vice-Chancellor had received Mr. Heaton-Harris’s pleasant little missive, and if so, what the response had been. Since then, SCAN has reported (http://tinyurl.com/y74h6dbd) that the VC did receive the request from Mr. Heaton-Harris, that it was considered under FOI procedures, and that the ruling followed the precedent set by Arkell v. Pressdram. It was to be expected, but pleasant to learn all the same.



As one of subtext’s drones was returning from a trip to the balmy South [they get holidays now?? -ed], imagine its surprise when it saw, as it was cruising up the A6 and passing the field immediately north of the current Lancaster University campus, the label ‘Lancaster Science Park’ emblazoned over a large grey rectangle to the right of the road on its sat nav screen. There may be no buildings, paths, lights, or any activity whatsoever on the field between Bailrigg Village and campus as yet, but at least someone is preparing for Lancaster’s bold northward expansion!



Here in the warehouse we are always pleasantly surprised when we learn how widespread and diverse our readership is. Following our story on the overcrowded bus (subtext 168) it cannot be a coincidence that your correspondent witnessed a Stagecoach driver, in the underpass, stood outside of his bus counting the passengers on so not to exceed the legal numbers of standing passengers. The power of the press!



Following our trip down memory lane (see subtext 168) a number of readers have expressed interest in knowing a little more about the Lancaster Social Education Project during the miners strike (1984/85). subtext would like to hear from readers who involved with the project or indeed the children and grandchildren of people who were active during that time and know of any ‘tales from the campsite’.


Dear subtext,

I suspect I’m not alone in asking if you’ve seen our latest signage but if not I suggest you pop ‘down south’ for a look. At first it all appeared very corporate and professional, a smart look with clear white on black text (though some colleagues feel the text is too small). However as of this week we’ve had a very odd black monolith appear at the south end of the spine with a map so small you’ll need to be issued with a magnifying glass to view, and a step ladder if you’re under 6ft tall. To cap it all Charles Carter has gained purple, black and white signage and the ISS building itself has a nice place for students or staff to rest their pint glasses, empty bottles and ashtrays on. The funny thing about the ISS building is you’d have to walk right up to the door to even read the sign!

Also has anyone commented on the removal of the location grid from the maps, replaced by some sort of numbering scheme? Patently the designer of the map has never had to use one to find anything! Nah let’s just get rid of the grid lines, we don’t like boxes, we’re not a box university! You can just imagine the meeting.

Name supplied


Dear subtext,

The new UA92 campus will educate 6500 new students – a 50% increase on Lancaster’s current numbers. This is being imposed on a town in Manchester which has a settled, established community of 30000. Many residents are very worried about the impact of such a high influx of students on our infrastructure and existing community. Part of the plan is to build a 20 storey tower on a very small site in the heart of Stretford which will house 1700 students. In a ‘masterplan’ consultation, our local council has shared vague information about how it will all work, hiding the most alarming plans within very long documents. It feels like our concerns are going unheard. We have yet to have any direct input from UA92, or from Lancaster. We would really like to hear evidence that all parties involved are considering the local community – perhaps some commitments to widening participation schemes and other outreach locally. But there is nothing, and we feel like our town is just being used to make more money for people who already have lots.

A Stretford resident (name supplied)


Dear subtext,

Your concerns over posters on campus advertising a public meeting on the centenary of the Balfour declaration (HOW NOT TO PROMOTE A POLITICAL MEETING, 26 Oct. 2017) seem to me misplaced. subtext objects to the ‘alarm’ likely to be caused among members of the University community by discussion of ‘Jewish opposition to Zionism’. There will doubtless be those that that disagree with speaker Robert Cohen’s views on Zionism, but is there really any reason to be alarmed at this subject being discussed?

subtext also objects to part of the poster’s blurb which states: ‘most Jewish communities around the world will be celebrating the anniversary’ of the Balfour declaration. This is actually the first half of a sentence, which in full reads: ‘While most Jewish communities around the world will be celebrating the anniversary, Palestinians see it as an historic betrayal of their rights, the implications of which are still being played out today’. Again, it is hard to see what is objectionable about this statement.

The piece goes on to cite a survey recording that ‘93% of British Jews feel that Israel is important to their identity’. The argument that seems to follow is that a similar number of British Jews regard the Balfour declaration as ‘on the whole, probably a good thing’ and would therefore not feel welcome at the advertised event. It seems a stretch to interpret British Jews seeing Israel as ‘important’ to their identity to represent any value judgement about the modern state of Israel, let alone a statement by a British Foreign Secretary made 100 years ago – even one as important as the Balfour declaration. More worrying is the inference that because a certain group holds something to be central to their identity, critical debate of this subject should be discouraged for fear of offending members of that group.

In a week when Chris Heaton-Harris MP seemingly united academia in defending freedom of political expression on university campuses it is disappointing to see subtext (usually a staunch defender of these values) objecting to a poster advertising discussion of a controversial topic – even if it is in a silly font.

Yours sincerely,

Thomas Mills


Dear subtext,

Have you seen the promotional video for the UA UA92? https://www.ua92.ac.uk/about-ua92. It is wrong on so many levels! Coming from a University that used to pride itself on its Centre for Women’s Studies we now seem to have slid into a very ‘iffy’ area of marketing. Entire thesis could be written about this representation of women in this presentation (the funding should be easy to achieve in the current Weinstein climate). It is so inappropriate that it would take an entire edition of subtext to discuss. Am I the only person who feels this presents Lancaster University in a very bad light? Sorry but on this one I feel Lancaster is way off trend.

Name supplied