Jerry Richardson 26 January 2023

Is “wokeism” really the biggest threat to free speech at universities?

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Ever Since the Tories first promised to ‘strengthen free speech at universities’ in their 2019 manifesto, they have done their best to mischaracterise the threat of “cancel culture” on UK campuses. ‘No-platforming’ has been a subject of contentious debate at universities for decades – the tactic was adopted by NUS in the 1970s as part of growing anti-fascist and anti-racist student movements. Now, the government is asserting that a rise in deplatforming poses a looming threat to free speech on campus.


Though record breaking numbers of cancelled external speaker events in the academic year 2020 – 2021 have been reported, with the likes of The Mail predictably blaming this on “woke students”, the figures reflected a year where pandemic-related restrictions were in place and still 99% of events were approved, compared with the previous year when the figure was 99.8%. That is not to suggest that cancel culture at UK universities does not exist, but evidence to support legislation has been vastly overstated.


Under the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, which is currently in its final stages, universities and student unions could be sanctioned for failing to accommodate lawful speech on campus by enforcing on unions that “the use of any premises occupied by the students’ union is not refused because of a person’s ideas, beliefs or views, or a body’s policy or objectives.”


While the House of Lords removed an amendment that would allow individuals to bring legal proceedings against a university or SU, criticisms that the Bill would offer a protection for legal but harmful hate speech and misinformation have largely gone ignored.


The policy paper, which served as a precursor for the Bill, relied heavily on flimsy and inaccurate evidence presented in a Policy Exchange report published in late 2019. The report included the fabricated story that Germaine Greer was deplatformed from an event at Cardiff University for “transphobic” comments – a lie that was repeated by David Davis when he presented the Bill in the House of Commons for the first time, despite the fact that the event actually went ahead.


At the Bill’s second reading, the former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said “32% of those who identified as fairly right or right have refrained from airing views in teaching and research, with 15% of those identifying as centre or left also self-censoring. This is both unwise and unhealthy.”


If Gavin Williamson was truly concerned about campus censorship he wouldn’t have strong-armed UK universities into adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism by threatening to take away their funding, in spite of the warnings from human rights lawyers and academics that the definition prohibits criticism of Israel and undermines free speech.


Furthermore, if the true intention of this Bill was to address self-censorship, it would address the findings of the 2018 NUS Survey into the The Experience of Muslim Students, which found that one third of respondents felt negatively affected by Prevent and of those, 43% felt unable to present their views as a result of the Prevent policy. Predictably, calls from the Joint Committee for the the impact of the Prevent on freedom of speech as it applies to universities to be reviewed have been ignored.


A third of Muslim students also reported being attacked or harassed at their place of study, which is exactly what ‘safe space policies’ are designed to address. They don’t exist to protect ‘woke liberal types’ from having their views challenged, they exist so that, for example, Black, Muslim, Jewish or LGBTQ+, students have a place to study without feeling threatened or excluded.


In 2018, a secretive eugenics conference was held on campus at University College London by a senior lecturer who invited a notorious white supremacist to speak. Previous contributors to the conference “included a researcher who once suggested a “compromise” of allowing paedophiles to rape children in their sleep”, according to the Independent.


Would the conference, which was apparently investigated by UCL, be protected in this Bill? Would the organisers be able to able to freely host and advertise this event? At the second reading of the Bill, Labour MP Kate Green asked whether the Bill would protect Holocaust deniers or “those seeking to spread conspiracy theories or to sow division in our communities” to which she received no concrete response. Where would the line be drawn and who would be responsible for policing it?


Whilst the Tories ban strike action and peaceful protest, Rishi Sunak announced that he will be appointing a “free speech tsar”. The plans have been floated around since the beginning of the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, and Cambridge fellow Arif Ahmed has been tipped for the role, the specifications of which are as blurred as the proposed legislation. Ahmed is of the opinion that universities should be places where you can “pretty much say what you like”.


Whether the role of the free speech tsar has been created to protect even the speech of those with extreme and dangerous perspectives or to step in and draw “the line”, the outcome is equally sinister.

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