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Freedom of speech in university

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Gavin Williamson has lost his job – to nobody’s surprise. He made some very high-profile errors in his role as Education minister and is widely seen as having neglected students’ interests during the worst months of the pandemic. But he may have done one thing right: he passed the Higher Education Bill in May. Universities and student unions in the UK now have legal obligations to protect the free expression of lawful opinions on campus. If they fail to protect controversial speech adequately, they will now face fines.

The government have made it clear that this is a crackdown on ‘no-platforming’, where activists try to get planned events cancelled in an attempt to suppress the views that would be expressed there. Activists might, for instance, block doors so that no one can enter the premises where an event is being held or attend the event but disrupt it by heckling. But no-platforming is just the tip of the iceberg of ways in which free expression can be prevented on campus. Protesting outside an event is perfectly legal, but it does force the hosts to hire security, which costs money. If students can’t afford to hire security, they have effectively been no-platformed even if the protesters didn’t intend for this to happen. When Jacob Rees-Mogg visited my university, some LGBTQ students organised a ‘kiss-in’, where they tried to kiss in front of him. In the end, Rees-Mogg was delayed, and they were in the pub by the time he arrived, so the protest was ineffective! But to make sure the event was secure, we had to introduce a ticketing system, book a more expensive venue, and hire security; options which are not available to every student society. In some circumstances, then, even peaceful protests can have a silencing effect. In theory, Gavin Williamson’s bill will encourage university bodies to pay for things like secure venues and security, so that controversial ideas can be discussed. But why does all this matter? Why is it important that controversial opinions can be expressed in universities?

The classic answer to this, and the answer famously put forward by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, is that controversial ideas are sometimes right. This means that denying people the right to discuss controversial ideas means we will inevitably miss out on lots of good ideas. Imagine if no one had been allowed to advance the controversial idea that women should be allowed to vote! What if no one had been able to say that the slave trade was immoral? The consequences would be disastrous for millions of people. In short, then, the classic position is this: ideas affect the world, and if we suppress ideas we don’t like, we miss out on good ideas and all the brilliant consequences they have.

I believe this is the wrong way to argue for freedom of speech.

The issue is that thinking in this way asks us to understand the value of good ideas solely in terms of their effects on the wider world. Women getting the vote, for example, is only a good idea because it had enormously good consequences for women. To be clear, ideas evidently do have enormous effects; but I think we lose something when we try to make this the criterion of a good idea. This is because when we think about ideas in this way, we start to think that the purpose of communicating an idea is primarily to influence. If a good idea has good effects, the point of discussing things with others is surely to try and bring about those effects, by converting those people to your point of view. When a marxist speaker delivers a speech, they are using ideas to bring about effects – the people that they convince are just the medium through which the speaker does so.

But this is exactly the kind of thinking that leads people to do the no-platforming in the first place. When we think about the discussion of ideas as akin to activism, it makes sense to try and disrupt the expression of these ideas when they are being used to bring about effects you think are terrible. And this leads us right back to where we started.

Instead, I think controversial ideas shouldn’t be silenced because expressing what you believe to be true is a basic human need. I have always been struck by the following statement made by Martin Luther:

I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.

“I can do no other”. Martin Luther admits that he is, in a sense, unfree – he is totally compelled – to express what he believes to be true. The point is that some ideas are too powerful, too central to be kept to yourself. Sometimes, ideas demand expression, and the sense that we ‘can do no other’ is in fact quite a common feeling; at least, it is what got me started writing for student publications some years ago and what has kept me doing it since. So, Williamson’s Higher Education Bill is actually a very important step in the right direction; ultimately, it safeguards the basic human need to express yourself when you really must.

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