“Free Speech” Law Will Make Academic Debate More Difficult, Not Easier | David Renton
The government has published its bill on higher education (freedom of expression). Under it, universities will have a new duty to guarantee freedom of expression for staff members, students and guest lecturers. Anyone (“a person”) will be able to take legal action (“initiate civil proceedings”) when they believe that a university or student union has failed to protect freedom of expression. An official with the Orwellian title of “director of free speech and academic freedom” will have to decide whether university courses, conferences and policies maintain academic freedom.
It is not wrong to think that freedom of expression is often threatened. But much of the bullying of the past few years has come from the conservatives and the right. Take the example of the Minister for Equality who publicly criticizes a journalist for his work. Or the secretary for culture involved in museum conservation decisions.
As for the university sector, in 2019, Warwick’s professor Dr Goldie Osuri was accused of telling students: “The idea that Labor is anti-Semitic is largely an idea of the Israel lobby.” This year, Tory MP Jonathan Gullis (a man who signed a letter that used the trope “cultural Marxism”) said that not only Osuri but the staff who investigated her and even her vice-chancellor “must all leave” .
In 2020, the Daily Mail newspaper ran an article accusing a Cambridge professor, Priyamvada Gopal, of incitement to racism. Later he admitted he defamed her, apologized and paid her £ 25,000 in compensation. Conservative commentator Douglas Murray argued, in a tweet Gopal wrote, that only her race protects her from dismissal.
There is no limit to the range of orders that can be requested under the government’s new bill. Under it, Osuri or Gopal could sue their universities by asking them to say that free speech was absolute and that the university would not reject them. (That wouldn’t give any of the speakers any protection from Tory MPs pushing for their sacking.)
But the bill empowers a much larger group of people than the speakers. It is almost unique in British law in the breadth of its provision. Compare, for example, our rules on judicial review: if someone wants to challenge a government decision, they must have “standing” – they must be affected by the decision they are challenging. But in the bill there is no standing requirement. Anyone, any business, any campaign can take legal action.
Think what that will do to ministers’ other policies: for example, their insistence that universities implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Critics argue that the definition prohibits criticism of Israel. If the bill passes, then any university that adopted the IHRA definition would be vulnerable to prosecution – by a student, a teacher, anyone – for an ordinance requiring the university to rewrite its policies and allow absolute freedom of expression.
Isn’t it a good thing that someone can take legal action? Not if the result is that every conference, every seminar, every guest speech could end in legal action. In civil litigation, the loser must pay the costs of the winning party. So the law is always more attractive to the types of public campaigns that can find a wealthy sponsor to pay the bills in the event of a loss.
Given the context in which it has emerged, the bill is clearly aimed at protecting right-wing campaigns, giving them the right to threaten universities in two ways at the same time. They will use the bill as a shield, demanding that their own speech be protected. They will use it as a sword, complaining that any radical speech is an attack on them.
If the bill passes, every time a university celebrates International Women’s Day, men’s rights organizations will insist that the university organize them as well. Any historian who teaches a course on the slave trade will request that another lecture be given, prioritizing the perspective of slave owners.
Officials who drafted the consultation for the bill felt that any speech should be allowed as long as it was a speech the speaker supported. The Equality Act, they argued, agreed with them in favor of as much speech as possible: “A conference whose content has been clearly announced in advance is unlikely to constitute harassment if the participants attend with prior knowledge of the opinions likely to be expressed. ”
This assumes that speakers at controversial events will push a certain distance and not further. But recent years have seen academic events with provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos, in the United States, who, in a 2016 speech, mocked a transgender student, and in a 2017 event. , encouraged participants to call immigration police on local undocumented migrants, or even to publicize the phone. number. Is this the kind of free speech we need to be protected?
The legislation creates a director of freedom of expression and academic freedom responsible for maintaining academic freedom in universities. Maintaining an academic community in which as many people as possible can express themselves requires tact, political sophistication, and the ability to see each individual event and the people protesting against it on their own terms.
Ministers can claim they have the skills to choose a free speech czar who can give the right advice to universities. But what we’ve seen from other Conservative appointments is a determination to bring the public sector under one-party control, with fellow travelers offered for roles at the BBC, EHRC and Ofcom.
Would the new Freedom Director have the independence of mind to scold Jonathan Gullis when he called for Osuri’s dismissal? To ask the question, is to answer it. He will be a conservative person who sees his job as disciplining those associated with the left and promoting the narrow demands of the warriors of the right culture.