Like most rules, “free speech” rules are better when they are shorter. The ideal would be a sentence, which would say “You can say what you want”. Oxford University’s “Statement on the Importance of Free Speech” doesn’t go that far, but what it says is pretty solid: “Recognizing the vital importance of free speech to life of the mind, a university may establish rules regarding the conduct of debate, but should never prevent lawful speech.
But it seems that not everyone likes this liberal approach. The Telegraph reports that a group of five Oxford colleges have banded together to create something called the “Oxford Free Speech Forum”, which is currently trying to rewrite the Oxford Free Speech Principles. And, tellingly, it does so at the same time as the government prepares to pass its Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, which seeks to ban censorship on campuses. According to Telegraphthe forum, which has already held two meetings this year, wants to replace Oxford’s commitment to free speech with “a framework for effectively and respectfully approaching difficult discussions on issues such as race and gender “.
The forum is led by David Isaac, provost of Worcester College and former president of the LGBT+ charity Stonewall. At the forum’s inaugural meeting in March, a recording whose Telegraph obtained, Isaac reportedly said he did not recognize the description of “leftist” universities as places that censor or discourage open discussion. Apparently, he also doesn’t see the need for free speech to be “forced on universities”, in line with the government’s Free Speech Bill.
Isaac’s alleged denial of a free speech crisis in universities recalls this phrase attributed to Labor Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the middle of the winter of discontent: “Crisis? What crisis?
It is almost impossible to bluntly deny that there is a free speech problem in universities. We have seen many speaker and event cancellations; internal and external regulation of free speech on campus; the distortion of the program to “respect religious sensitivities”; university administrations taking political sides on contentious issues; a university takes disciplinary action against a student for saying that women are born with vaginas; and attempts by activists to intimidate a feminist teacher into the point where she needed a bodyguard during class. There’s so much more where this all came from.
I attended Gender Recognition Act lectures that were to be held in secret locations on university premises, with no publicity, with a closed guest list. I have met academics who live in daily fear of violence for expressing widespread skepticism about Stonewall – and their universities are doing nothing to protect them. I know of 18-year-olds being ostracized within weeks of entering college because someone dug up something they had written questioning this or that orthodoxy. This is all happening at universities in Britain today.
Isaac opposes the free speech bill on the grounds that universities do not want or need free speech “forced upon” them. But the bill is not about imposing freedom of speech on universities – it is about protecting the freedom of speech of scholars and students. This should be the job of the university authorities, but they are simply not intervening at the moment, hence the intervention of the government.
There is an easy way for every Vice Chancellor in the country to prevent anything being forced on their universities by the Free Speech Bill. All they have to do is stop the McCarthyite persecution of people on campus who hold the “wrong” opinions – for example, those women who dare to say that biological sex is real, which seemed obvious to everyone. world until about 15 minutes ago.
Another speaker at the first meeting of the Free Speech Forum in March reportedly said that free speech is “not always a sincere expression of trying to broaden the thinking about the world that we have inherited …and can often act to preserve existing power”. structures’.
It’s true. Not everyone is engaged in “thoughtful reflection on the world we have inherited”. Some indeed say and write shocking things to draw attention to themselves. But that’s not an argument against free speech. Nor is the argument that free speech can be used to preserve “existing power structures”. Of course, freedom of expression can be used to support, for example, the power of the state to impose confinement. But freedom of expression is also the main means by which we can challenge power. As Ira Glasser, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, once observed: “The real antagonist of speech is power.
There will always be rhetoric defending “existing power structures”. But speech that opposes these power structures can only exist when and where it is free. That is why academics, perhaps especially those who claim to stand up to power, must defend free speech at all costs.
Arif Ahmed is a lecturer in philosophy at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
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