The media have been caught exaggerating, and they’re trying to bullshit their way out of it

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On 27 March, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on free speech in universities. The committee criticised the media for exaggerating reports of a ‘free speech crisis’ in British universities. In response, several newspapers ignored the actual findings of the committee and claimed that the report supported their exaggerated claims. In other words, when called out on their bullshit, the press gave us more of it.

The report

The report highlighted the committee’s “serious concerns over barriers to free speech”. The committee also published guidance for universities and students when organising events to protect and promote this vital human right. When reporting on the scale of the problem, the committee found that:

The press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality. During our inquiry, we have heard first hand from all the key players in the university setting, including students, student society and student union representatives, vice-chancellors and university administration staff. A large amount of evidence suggests that the narrative that “censorious students” have created a “free speech crisis” in universities has been exaggerated.

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In its conclusions and recommendations, the committee said:

we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.

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Media responses

There was no self-examination or self-criticism in the media’s response, nor any reappraisal of its narrative. ‘Intolerant attitudes’, ‘safe spaces’, and ‘no platform’ policies are to blame, the press maintained. Not only did media outlets continue with the ‘free speech crisis’ narrative, they also used the select committee report as vindication.

The Times ran with the headline:

Universities should not be safe spaces, say MPs

The Daily Mail stated:

Universities should not be ‘safe spaces’ as this puts free speech at risk, says Harriet Harman

The Sun declared:

UNI GAG RAP Universities are using ‘safe space’ policies to stifle free speech, MPs warn.

And RT announced:

University safe spaces could be having ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, MPs warn.

The Guardian did acknowledge the committee did not find “pervasive censorship”. But it went with the headline:

Safe spaces used to inhibit free speech on campuses, inquiry finds.

The BBC blamed “intolerant attitudes” and ran:

‘Intolerance’ threat to university free speech.

The Evening Standard went further:

Universities ordered to allow controversial speakers and not become ‘safe spaces’.

And, not to be outdone, ITV Report blatantly exaggerated:

Free speech at UK universities is being shut down, MPs warn.

Some media outlets ran with more balanced coverage. For example, Times Higher Education reported:

Claims of free speech crisis on campuses ‘exaggerated’, say MPs.

Disruptive protests and intolerance

The committee was concerned about disruptive protests. Yet the report only cited eight incidents between 2015 and 2018 when an event was disrupted or cancelled due to protests. In nearly all the incidents, security removed the protesters and the talk continued. In the most serious incident [para 46, box 7] – the King’s College London (KCL) Libertarian Society Event, 5 March 2018 – protests turned violent. After a smoke bomb had been let off, the building was evacuated. The talk was stopped. The president and principal of KCL, Professor Edward Byrne, said of this event:

King’s hosts around 3,000 events a year and the vast majority go ahead without issue. The necessary curtailment of the Libertarian Society event on 5 March was the exception. Of the 3,000 events last year, 20 events were referred for review, with four deemed to be high-risk and none were prevented from occurring. But by allowing the high-risk events to occur we are inevitably criticised for either not preventing “freedom from hate” or for allowing non-violent – but often noisy – protests which violate “freedom of speech”.

Safe spaces and no platforming

‘Safe space’ policies are guidelines produced by student unions that aim to encourage an environment on campus free from harassment and fear. They seek to restrict the expression of certain views or words that can make some groups feel unsafe. Debates take place within specific guidelines to ensure that people do not feel threatened because of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Not all student unions have safe space policies.

Individual student unions will democratically decide if they wish to have a no platform policy each year. The purpose of a ‘no platform’ policy is to prevent individuals or groups known to hold racist or fascist views from speaking at student union events and to ensure that student union officers do not share a public platform with such individuals or groups. The NUS’s official “No Platform” policy is a “specific” and “narrow” policy listing only six organisations: Al-Muhajiroun; the British National Party (BNP); the English Defence League (EDL); Hizb-ut-Tahir; the Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and National Action.

The committee was also concerned with ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platforming’. The inquiry collected evidence from a total of 34 witnesses and received 109 written submissions. In neither of the two most high-profile examples of ‘no-platforming’ – Germaine Greer at Cardiff University and Peter Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church University – was the speaker’s freedom of speech curtailed, as they were not stopped from speaking.

Main factors limiting free speech in universities

The inquiry found that the main factors limiting free speech were regulatory complexity and confusion about the Prevent policy and the way the Charity Commission regulates student unions. These were the main themes of its discussion and guidance, and the witness statements. Yet in the committee’s survey of 33 student union officers, only six said there was a problem with free speech at their university. Three of these blamed regulations. When asked how many times an event was cancelled in the last year because of a controversial speaker, 30 said ‘none’.

The real barriers to free speech

The chair of the committee, Harriet Harman MP, said:

While media reporting has focussed on students inhibiting free speech – and in our report we urge universities to take action to prevent that – free speech is also inhibited by university bureaucracy and restrictive guidance from the Charity Commission. We want students themselves to know their rights to free speech and that’s why we’ve issued a guide for students today.

Clearly, universities do need to protect freedom of speech, especially unpopular and controversial views. Those views are quite distinct from illegal speech, such as speech advocating criminal acts or hatred of a specific group of people. Students do need guidance on how to respect both safe spaces and freedom of speech. But safe spaces and no platform policies are not the main barriers to freedom of speech.

For the most part, universities are doing a good job in respecting freedom of speech. Despite the committee’s concerns about safe spaces and no platform polices, the evidence in the report shows that this is true.

Universities are not censoring free speech. The whole “free speech crisis” in universities is essentially a fabrication of the press. When the media distorts and deceives, fabricates crises and controversy, and spreads falsehoods, it prevents people’s views and the truth from being heard. It is a form of shouting someone down. It prevents rational debate and open discussion. In fact, media lies and bullshit are the real barriers to freedom of speech in the UK.

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