Freedom of speech, censorship and bias – interesting times in HE

Freedom of speech in HE is in the press – a lot – at the moment.  The debate is very polarised and polarising.  For that reason, I should clarify before I start that the views below are my own (and not an official position for BU or the Lighthouse Group).

It started last week, when the massive set of consultations on the Office for Students (OfS) and the new regulatory framework were launched with a flurry about freedom of speech. The Times published an interview with Jo Johnson discussing the proposal that measures to protect freedom of speech should be a condition of OfS registration. The Guardian notes proposed powers for the OfS to fine or suspend the registration of universities that fail to protect the freedom of speech on campus, including student unions that ‘no platform’ controversial speakers.

The opening statements refer to it:

  • Johnson: “Our young people and students need to accept the legitimacy of healthy, vigorous debate in which people can disagree with one another. That’s how ideas get tested, prejudices exposed and society advances. Universities mustn’t be places in which free speech is stifled.”
  • Sir Michael Barber OfS Chair: “Ensuring freedom of speech and learning how to disagree with diverse opinions and differing views of the world is a fundamental aspect of learning at university. The OfS will promote it vigorously.”

The relevant bit of the consultation starts on page 32 –

  • This consultation includes such a public interest principle, which states that the governing body of an institution must take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured within its institution. This public interest principle will form part of the public interest governance condition…”
  • “The OfS will use ‘indicative behaviours’ to assess compliance with the principles; these are set out in the Guidance on registration conditions. With regard to free speech, for example, one behaviour that would indicate compliance would be to have a freedom of speech code of practice. This should set out the procedures which members, students and employees should follow in relation to meetings or activities, and the conduct which is expected of those individuals. Some of the best examples set out clearly what does and does not constitute reasonable grounds for refusal of a speaker, and the disciplinary actions which would follow a breach of the code of practice. A behaviour that might indicate non-compliance would be where a provider fails to abide by its own freedom of speech procedures”.

It is interesting to note, though, that in the summary of the consultation prepared for students by the Department for Education, freedom of speech is not mentioned. So do the DfE not think that this is not something they need to draw to students’ attention or encourage them to comment on? Or just not a very big issue at all and so didn’t make the cut in the summarising process?

There was of course something of a media/social media storm, with rage from both ends of the political spectrum about those with different views allegedly seeking to stifle or prevent free speech, big disagreements on the role of trigger warnings, safe spaces and “no platforming”, and a number of voices pointing out that universities are already subject to legal obligations (on both free speech and on implementing the Prevent duty), that students’ unions are separate legal entities (usually charities) and that maybe the concern about freedom of speech was a bit over-played.

So that was last week. And then this week, the letter that all universities were sent on 3rd October by the MP for Daventry made the headlines. VCs get letters from MPs now and again, about topics they are interested in or about specific issues that they wish to raise, sometimes relating to an individual constituent. I believe that the usual approach is to respond helpfully, but we do not always provide all the information requested. Sometimes we have to consider confidentiality or data protection. We could treat them formally as requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – but more often we prefer to respond, at least initially. in an appropriate, polite and hopefully constructive way. Often they are seeking the views of the VC on a subject, which they would not always get under FOIA. If the MP is not satisfied with the response, we would of course provide all the information required under FOIA.

So when this letter arrived, how did we all react? If you haven’t sbeen following it, then a good start is this Guardian article, which includes the letter itself and a number of the sector responses. Jo Johnson tweeted about academic freedom, and the UUK President Janet Beer wrote for Times Higher Education and academic freedom. Alastair Jarvis, Chief Executive of UUK, went a bit further in his blog. But this all happened two weeks after the letter was sent.  Why the delay (if it was so serious?).

And was this about censorship? Well of course not directly. The MP for Daventry has certain views on Brexit, but he was not demanding that universities change anything, even assuming he did not like the responses that he got. He might have come to that later, of course. But in these uncertain times, when some participants in any debate rush perhaps too easily to condemn a person rather that their views, we are all a bit sensitive. And lobbying has changed. It’s no longer a world of polite meetings over tea with civil servants – a world I heard described by Alison Wolf at the fascinating Commemorative Lecture for Dr Ruth Thompson at Birkbeck this week. These days expressing extreme outrage and cooking up a twitter storm, the more controversial the better, does seem to work. You can’t be expected to give evidence and back up for your assertions in 140 characters, after all. And then suddenly “public opinion” is engaged and it is bound to be picked up by policy makers.

So the story could (hypothetically) develop like this:

  • MP (with certain political views) receives information at least some of which confirms that some academics may not agree with his political views (based on evidence, of course) and may exercise their academic freedom to say so
  • MP may then publish something which draws attention to this and may also lament a lack of balance in the system
  • Threat 1: Unfortunately, because he has also named individuals (presumably so that he can penetrate the “blob” and get to the facts and data behind the headlines), those individuals and their institutions, and in fact members of the HE sector generally are then targeted by trolls – not what the MP had in mind but perhaps an inevitable consequence
  • The story takes off and a wider press attack on the sector starts, which does question academic freedom, alleging bias and brainwashing (see the Daily Mail).
  • Threat 2: Some part of the story then gets taken up by politicians, features in a speech and next thing we know it is in a policy document. And that thing might be perceived as a threat to academic freedom. It might, at least to some, amount to censorship.

It could happen. In fact, it already has, because the “thing” is likely to be freedom of speech. After all, one answer to allegations of brainwashing is to insist on a code of practice that requires balance in debate, the opportunity for opponents to respond etc. And the OfS consultation was conveniently out before this story hit the press. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy, by the way (that’s another thing that people are worried about these days).

So we are back to where we started with the debate around freedom of speech. I am personally concerned that “freedom of speech” means, at least to some, “freedom to insult those who disagree with me and to describe them as evil and/or worthless individuals”. But I don’t think that the proposed regulations on this issue as they are articulated at the moment will restrict academic freedom (although I am still working through the massive set of consultation documents).

So while I understand threat 1 – which is serious – I am not sure that I really understand threat 2. The letter may have read like a polite version of a McCarthy inquiry but it wasn’t official. Not everyone supports Prevent, and not everyone likes the HERA, but we’re a little way from direct censorship of the content of courses. Not least because we do have freedom of speech – thank goodness- and twitter users would never stand for it.

And what about the letter? Some VCs have published blogs or their responses. Some will have followed Chris Patten’s advice and dropped it in the waste paper basket. Many will have simply referred to publicly available information on their websites, which is what they would have done anyway if there hadn’t been a storm.  Perhaps they had already done that before the storm happened.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *