Balancing free speech with freedom from harassment in HE

Policy-makers and academic leaders are grappling with proposed legislation in the United Kingdom designed to protect free speech and academic freedom in the wake of high-profile incidents such as students ‘no-platforming’ controversial speakers and a philosophy professor who was accused of transphobia claiming to have been hounded out of her university post for her views.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill working its way through the UK parliament, together with the creation of a new post of director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students to investigate higher education providers and advise on sanctions and redress, shows the British government intends to get tough with what it sees as offenders.

How big is the threat to freedoms?

But is the threat to free speech and academic freedom in the UK really as big an issue as many Conservative politicians and some right-wing media commentators suggest? Or is the government “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”, as Labour Party critics claim?

These were among the questions under the microscope in a Westminster Higher Education Forum online debate jointly chaired by Lord Grabiner QC and Matt Western MP, shadow minister for further education and universities, on 17 January.

The half-day session brought together some of the big hitters from both sides of the argument, with gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell saying: “While there is a problem with freedom of speech in some universities, it has been somewhat exaggerated.”

He took aim at the former University of Sussex philosophy professor, Kathleen Stock, and said that while she was subjected to protests for her views on trans people, “in most cases these were peaceful”, and he condemned those actions amounting to abuse and harassment, but said she had decided to resign citing a lack of support from her union, the University and College Union.

Tatchell’s argument that a few high-profile cases had dominated the whole debate appeared to be backed up by Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, who told the forum that Office for Students data showed that in 2019-20 there were “just 94 speaker events or requests from over 43,000 actually rejected”, which represented 0.2% of the total.

Academics ‘maligned’ for their views

Stock hit back later in the Westminster Higher Education Forum, saying she was “very aware of the desire of critics to minimise what happened to her” and claimed Tatchell withdrew from a public debate with her after being strongly criticised by his supporters on social media for agreeing to share a platform and debate the issue with her.

Stock criticised the current research culture in British academia for allowing the “character and intentions of certain academics to be maligned because they hold a certain position”, adding: “Robust disagreement should not only be tolerated but encouraged.”

Stock announced on 8 November that she would be joining the University of Austin in the United States after dramatically resigning her post at the University of Sussex a month previously, following what UK newspapers, including the Daily Mail, called a “bullying and harassment” campaign, and her branding as a “transphobe” by some students and staff.

The vice-chancellor at Sussex University, Adam Tickell, defended her “untrammelled” right to “say what she thinks”, but she announced on Twitter that after “a very difficult few years” she was sad to be leaving.

Stock told the Westminster forum that university culture in the UK had become “saturated” with “maternal type values of kindness, caring and inclusion”, but this meant “social justices are not properly scrutinised” and that disagreement is not tolerated “and is often presented as an automatic sign of bad character or evil intent”.

She said academics were self-censoring because of the “increasingly toxic environment” and that “most people do not want to face the sorts of things that I have had to put up with”.

To those who say they have never encountered this problem, Stock suggested “they haven’t said anything controversial” and went on to criticise the “negative effect of the impact agenda”, by which she meant “positive impact which fits within the dominant ideologies”.

Reasons for legislation

The half-day Westminster forum event began with Dr Joe Lewis, further and higher education policy specialist at the UK’s House of Commons Library, explaining that “legislation to defend freedom of speech on campuses was part of the Conservative Party election manifesto at the last general election in the UK”.

The issue, he said, had become more heated after the media highlighted so-called ‘no-platforming’ of speakers by students at a number of British universities and protests against some lecturers.

Lewis said that while universities already had to take “reasonably practical steps to secure freedom of speech for staff and students and visiting speakers and keep a code of conduct”, the government believes the current framework is “both overly complicated and insufficient” despite the no-platform policy of the UK National Union of Students being limited to just six racist or fascist organisations.

He said there had already been five hours of “quite an emotive debate” at the second reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, with the Conservatives insisting the new legislation was “needed to counter growing intolerance in universities and society more broadly” and Labour MPs saying that while they supported the principle of freedom of speech in higher education, “the bill’s proposals were like a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

In the discussion that followed at the forum on 17 January, Duffy warned: “We need to be careful in talking about a generation of snowflakes or social justice warriors coming through”, and that it was healthy for young people to have different views to their elders.

“It is important to realise the sense of cultural divide is often exaggerated and in many ways the gap between baby boomers and their parents was larger than today,” he said.

Definition of academic freedom very narrow

One issue on which almost all speakers agreed was the need to widen the definition of academic freedom in the bill, which lawyer James Murray, a senior associate at Taylor Vinters, said was “very narrow and … limited to an academic’s field of expertise”.

He said: “That needs to be much wider and reflect international standards of freedom to teach, research and criticism of governance affiliation.”

Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, agreed with Murray that the definition of protecting an academic when they are speaking within their field of expertise “would have to go”, saying: “That’s a very weak and insufficient protection.”

Murray also highlighted another weakness in the proposed legislation from a lawyer’s point of view, saying: “The bill also does nothing to address the threat of internationalisation to academic freedom, particularly money that comes direct from foreign autocracy. In the absence of proper oversight, donors could exert improper influence on a university’s agenda.”

From the perspective of minority student groups, Nina Freedman, president of the 8,500-strong Union of Jewish Students in the UK and Ireland, said the legislation “could make some much needed steps to ensure free speech is protected within the law”.

But she warned it could also present challenges to safeguarding minority students if anti-Semitic and other hate speakers were given protection to spread their views under the law.

“We have led campaigns to get these speakers no-platformed, which would be unavailable to us under this new proposed legislation,” she said.

The bill is due to move to its third reading in the near future and on to the House of Lords before it is either amended or wins final approval.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.