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2 June 2023

How to solve a problem like free speech? Even the tsar will struggle

University students need to be exposed to different views - but even the government doesn't seem to know where to make trade-offs.

By David Willetts

Earlier this week, the government named its long-awaited “free speech tsar” for higher education. It is Arif Ahmed, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, who said he will defend “all views”. He will be responsible for investigating breaches of the Freedom of Speech Act, which was passed last month.

I do believe there are threats to freedom of speech in our universities. One reason is that our views and our identities appear to be more closely entwined – criticism of someone’s opinions is likely to be seen as an attack on who they are. Another is the emergence of the idea that language itself can be an instrument of oppression, so what you say matters even more. These attitudinal shifts are putting real pressure on freedom of speech on higher-education campuses – vividly seen with the problems encountered by the gender-critical academic Kathleen Stock, whose 2021 book Material Girls is a lucid philosophical investigation of issues around gender and womanhood. Her visit to the Oxford Union earlier this week was met with protests, and one demonstrator glued their hand to the floor.

Universities are not alone in encountering these problems. But they are central to concerns about freedom of speech because that is where many young people have their eyes opened to such issues. Part of the excitement of university is in meeting people from a range of different backgrounds and with much more diverse views. They can be where, stimulated by that diversity, we learn how to disagree.

University administrators already face tricky issues when it comes to promoting the best environment for disagreement. The absolutist may not see any constraints at all other than legislation. But not even the government seems to be quite as absolute as that. When the bill on freedom of speech in higher education was announced in 2021, Michelle Donelan, then the universities minister, was asked on Radio 4’s Today programme if Holocaust denial would be permitted. She said yes it would be (Holocaust denial is a legal offence in Germany but not in the UK). But then No 10 briefed that it wouldn’t be allowed after all. Confusingly, the government was saying that there is legal free speech which would not be permitted in universities, under its new legislation designed to protect free speech. Even as parliament scrutinised the bill, we never found out how No 10 reached this view, and what regulations might be used to enforce it.

The unintended consequences might be various: for example, to enforce the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which took Labour so long to adopt, might itself be seen as a threat to the legal rights in the new legislation. This is the sort of challenge that could land on Ahmed’s desk early on. It is often presupposed that movements to defend free speech primarily defend those with right-wing views. But, as I have previously argued, the free speech bill’s protections could be used for a wide spectrum of beliefs – for example, there is room for those with extreme Islamist views to claim protections under it.

It is easy to forget that universities are also communities and unions – places where students not only become academically qualified but live and grow up with one another. This is why vice-chancellors face dilemmas about how freedom of speech can be exercised. If a speaker who disapproves of gay people is invited to a union event, can they legitimately be asked not to come during Gay Pride week? What if a figure likely to spark controversy and protest is invited to speak in the same building at the same time as students sitting exams? Is the management of time and place legitimate, or does that constitute an attempt to interfere with freedom of speech? The government’s Prevent anti-extremist initiative suggests that an event containing a fanatical speaker should have a neutral chair or be counter-balanced with someone who holds different views. Is that appropriate, or is it another interference in freedom of speech? And who decides which speakers are “extremist” and require such extra care? Most bizarrely of all, there is a sense that if a university is in dispute with students or academics about their performance, it might be claimed that this is because of their opinions and therefore is a threat to freedom of speech.

We are still waiting to see how the new freedom of speech legislation is actually supposed to change the way student unions and universities wrestle with these questions. Arif Ahmed can earn respect and support for his guidance on freedom of speech – but only if he listens, learns and sincerely grapples with the issues.

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