The new university free speech guidelines are tackling a problem that doesn’t exist

Woman with tape over mouth
Chris Jarvis

Free speech in universities is back in the headlines. New guidance for how universities should protect free speech was issued on 2 February. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) produced the guidance in collaboration with a range of organisations, including the Department for Education and the National Union of Students (NUS).

The guidance was ostensibly written in response to concerns that freedom of speech is being restricted on university campuses. But in reality, this concern is unfounded.

The myth of threats to free speech

The media circus about speakers banned by a ‘snowflake generation’ is neverending. But there is little to no evidence of a threat to free speech in the UK’s universities. A 2016 assessment from Change SU found that not a single Students’ Union had banned a speaker in the preceding 12 months.

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Even the new guidance reflected this. Referencing an earlier inquiry into free speech in universities, it states:

freedom of expression was not a widespread issue

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The inquiry it refers to found:

The press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality… A large amount of evidence suggests that the narrative that “censorious students” have created a “free speech crisis” in universities has been exaggerated.

“No widespread problem”

Further still, in his comments on the guidance which he helped draft, NUS vice president Amatey Doku said:

The Joint Committee on Human Rights in Parliament found that there was no widespread problem with freedom of expression at universities, and issues such as regulatory complexity or bureaucracy and reported self-censorship arising from the Prevent Duty were as much of a concern as the small minority of cases repeatedly cited in the media.

And crucially, on the day the guidance was published, the chair of the EHRC admitted having no idea how many individuals had been prevented from speaking on university campuses. When asked on the Today programme whether he knew how many instances of ‘no platforming’ there have been, he said:

In fact, we don’t because we’ve been really keen to try and get that information. And there’s a lot of anecdotal information, and it suggests that there are lots. But talking to all of the organisations that we’ve worked with to produce this guidance, it’s pretty clear that there are some, but not that many.

Media hysteria

Given the evidence shows that reports of free speech’s death in UK universities are greatly exaggerated, why was the guidance necessary?

The context behind the guidance is important. Hard right groups such as Spiked Magazine have repeatedly pushed the narrative that free speech is under attack. Its annual ‘free speech rankings‘ argue universities are becoming increasingly restrictive on freedom of expression.

Looking a little closer at the rankings, though, it becomes clear just how absurd Spiked’s position is. For example, the criteria through which it concludes free speech is under threat include policies attempting to tackle sexual harassment and racist abuse.

Alongside the likes of Spiked, mainstream outlets have similarly expressed their concerns. Columns have highlighted cases of speakers ‘banned’, ‘no-platformed’ or ‘restricted’ from speaking – often with misrepresentations or fabrication. Individuals the press have highlighted include Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer – despite neither of them having been prevented from speaking.

In other instances, the press has written off entire campuses with misleading claims of similar ‘bans’.

Reporting like this has created a febrile environment with media hysteria whipping up a mythical narrative of universities threatening free speech. Indeed, both the Guardian and the New Statesman have highlighted how this has been an intention of the political right.

This environment has then forced the government to act to produce this guidance. But the guidance doesn’t achieve any protections of free speech. In fact, all it serves to achieve is to ensure free speech at universities remains in the headlines.

Missing the real point

Alongside this, the media narrative and the new guidance itself misses the real threat to free speech. Despite totalling 54 pages, the new guidance dedicates just two pages to the government’s counter-terrorism strategy Prevent.

Government documents claim Prevent responds to the “ideological challenge of terrorism” and stops “people from being drawn into terrorism”.

But the policy has received widespread criticism. The NUS has argued:

Prevent has long been criticised as fundamentally racist and Islamophobic, targeting the Muslim community whilst eroding civil liberties for all as part of a clampdown on political dissent and undermining the space for critical discussion in our universities, colleges and schools.

In a powerful video, it also claimed that Prevent “forces colleges and universities to spy on students”. It then argued:

Prevent is silencing students, promoting a culture of surveillance and self-censorship, and undermining our universities and colleges as spaces of free and rigorous debate.

The Prevent strategy receives limited attention from those bemoaning the lack of free speech in universities. They instead focus on alleged bans from students’ unions and universities on speakers accused of racism, sexism or transphobia. Responding to the new free speech guidance, a Wonkhe article explored what this differing level of attention shows:

But above all, it’s the contrast with the early 00s context that’s most sinister. Back when the supposed threat was radical islamic ideas, the government was wink wink nudge nudging universities and unions into banning speakers – despite there being no legal basis to do so… Now when the threat is those with extreme, far-right, discriminatory views, the government is suggesting that universities and unions must always let them speak.

Wrong priorities

Given this, advocates of free speech on campus should ask themselves some important questions. Should they be focusing their efforts on campus speaker bans with limited evidence to suggest they are widespread? Or should they instead focus on a state-conducted programme which has faced accusations of racism and spying on students?

It should be clear which is the more pressing. But it is also clear that the latest guidance is trying to tackle the former. In doing so, it ignores a very real problem in order to respond to a problem which doesn’t exist.

Featured image via Pxhere

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    1. While it is right to prompt attention to Prevent the article misses out the other major state attack on Free Speech in Universities (and elsewhere) the IHRA (mis)definition of antisemitism. This document , under the guise of protecting Jews from antisemitism, is being used to outlaw necessary free debate on Palestine/Israel by use of its 11 examples, 7 of which relate to Israel.

      It is being urged on Universities by successive Government ministers, insouciant of the effect on the very free speech they affect to cherish in their latest document.

      For more details on how application of the definition is likely to breach UK and European human rights law see http://freespeechonisrael.org.uk/qcopinion/

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