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16 February 2021

Gavin Williamson’s proposals on free speech and universities are a half-baked mess

Instead of serious policy, the Education Secretary offers only clumsy phrases and misused statistics.

By Stephen Bush

There are a number of clumsy comments in Gavin Williamson’s new paper on protecting free speech at English universities. The funniest is the line that talks of the “many people who experienced first-hand the persecution of the gay rights movement or the oppression of the Soviet Union”, the construction of which could render the sentence either pro-Soviet or homophobic.

The most unfortunate is the plainly racist phrasing that the United Kingdom had “done the right thing by offering Salman Rushdie sanctuary” at the time of the fatwa against him following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988. Rushdie is a British citizen, and at the time of the fatwa, was a resident of the UK. He was not “offered” sanctuary any more than a British schoolchild is “offered” schooling or you and I are “offered” sanctuary if we call the police after being victim to a crime.

The most alarming comment is the one that provides the following troubling statistic: that “a quarter of students saw violence as an acceptable response to some forms of speech”. But the King’s College study in question was not about what happens on campus, but about attitudes to speech more broadly. The relevant question was: “If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views”, with students asked to respond on a strongly agree/agree/don’t know/disagree/strongly disagree scale. Focus groups of students from the same study found that respondents were not advocating violence as an active tactic for challenging hate speech, but were uncomfortable with the idea they would “sit there and do nothing” in the face of it.

This paper conflates a series of very different questions in an unhelpful way. Do I think, for instance, that if I’m walking with a group of friends and a passer-by hurls a racist epithet at me, then one of my mates is justified in turning around and punching them? Yes. Do I think that’s the right or acceptable course of action? No. Do I think this is a useful or even particularly relevant debate as far as “free speech on campus” is concerned? No! It is neither right nor helpful to conflate these two very different questions and debates as Williamson does in his paper.

[see also: Podcast: Are new campus free speech laws really necessary?]

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These clumsy comments and the misuse of survey data are the preface to a paper that is long on rhetoric, but short on meaningful policy action to “defend free speech on campus”.

Now, as it happens, I agree with Williamson: there is a problem with free speech on university campuses. Its most fixable cause is that the academic job market is highly insecure, precarious and deeply casualised.

As Sarah O’Connor explains in the FT, the higher education labour market is one in which a large group of insecure employees work alongside a much smaller group of secure insiders – and while their responsibilities, and in some cases titles, are identical on the outside, their levels of job security are not. Insecure, short-term contracts inevitably create a situation that is not conducive to a collegiate working environment or to one in which people are willing to challenge their bosses’ orthodoxies or beliefs. Yet, in the new paper, there is little in the way of meaningful comment on these issues, other than a cursory acknowledgement of them.

I’m not saying that this is the only factor at work, but it is the only one that you can easily remedy without running into difficult, perhaps intractable, questions about student unions’ freedom of association, the obligations placed upon universities by counter-terror and counter-extremist legislation, and more besides. In Williamson’s defence, these tensions are acknowledged in the paper, but it presents no serious solutions to any of them.

And perhaps that reflects the real problem for any politician seeking to avoid talking about tangible policy issues and instead choosing to focus on “culture wars”. If you want to address the real limitations on free speech at university you have to address the genuinely difficult ones on labour markets in higher education, and the implications that counter-extremism legislation has on academic free speech. If you aren’t willing to accept the costs and trade-offs of tackling those problems, you are, inevitably, confined to broad gestures and dodgy stats.

[see also: The free speech wars]