Students Are Leading The Free Speech Fightback

University campuses have become dangerous places to speak your mind. But the censors have suffered a number of recent reverses

Dan Hitchens

Louise Richardson: Students should be made uncomfortable (©OUI IMAGES/JOHN CAIRNS)

Last November, Professor Colin Riordan found himself in the middle of a free-speech kerfuffle. Cardiff University, of which he is Vice-Chancellor, had invited Germaine Greer to speak. Students protested, pointing to Greer’s history of crass remarks about transgender people. They demanded the event be called off. Unlike many a university leader before him, Riordan took the opportunity to enunciate some principles of what a university stands for. Cardiff, he said, was “committed to freedom of speech and open debate”. The event went ahead.

Riordan recalls: “Although it was personally difficult for me, it wasn’t difficult for me in terms of what I knew my duty and obligation was.” Riordan is no libertarian zealot; he knows that speech can do harm, and having trans friends himself, he worried about what “knock-on effects” Greer’s words might have. “But at the same time, if you’re going to apply those kind of criteria, that you worry what might happen if somebody says something, then you’re going to find yourself very constrained.”

These principles, which until recently seemed too obvious to be worth arguing over, are notoriously out of fashion on university campuses at present. The stories of overzealous student unions banning speakers on abortion, Islam, gender and so on have become monotonous.

Less well reported is the fact that the censors have had some setbacks. Greer gave her Cardiff lecture; at Warwick, the Iranian secularist Maryam Namazie was first banned by the students’ union, then reinstated after an outcry; at Manchester, a debate featuring Julie Bindel was cancelled by the students’ union, but the organisers went ahead anyway. If large-scale campus censorship is new, so too is the response to it — and there are some small encouraging signs.

Riordan’s intervention over Greer mattered partly because university leaders had previously kept quiet about censorship. He believes they should speak out more and give a lead. “It’s important for vice-chancellors of universities to set the tone,” he says. “To say that these are the principles, we must uphold them, this is how we should be upholding them.”

For Riordan, the nature of the institution demands open debate. “Universities are places where the exchange of ideas and freedom of expression are really fundamental to the point of our being,” he says. “If you can’t say things that others dis-agree with, if you can’t debate new ideas — or for that matter debate old ideas — and disagree with one another, then in the end there is no point in having a university.” The “creation of new ideas” depends on it. “It’s an absolutely fundamental principle that within the law, and so long as order can be maintained, you have to have free speech.”

Given how many students disagree, Riordan says, “I don’t think we can be complacent about it and simply assume it’s going to take care of itself.” Still, he is confident that other university leaders would do something similar in his position.

Perhaps that is starting to happen. A few months ago Louise Richardson, Oxford’s new Vice-Chancellor, told the Telegraph: “We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable.” Richardson said that asking why an opinion makes you uncomfortable, and considering why others nevertheless believe it, is part of mature thought. “That’s quite the opposite of the tendency towards safe spaces, and I hope that universities will continue to defend the imperative of allowing even objectionable ideas to be spoken.”

The trouble is that a lot of campus censorship takes place before a vice-chancellor hears about it. An event gets tangled up in a deliberate bureaucratic obstruction. More often than not, students’ unions exercise power with little accountability. Last year Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (or WASH) invited Maryam Namazie to speak. As was customary, their president Benjamin David notified the students’ union about her talk. A fortnight later, they told him that the event was off. “A number of flags have been raised,” the SU said. “There a [sic] number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker that indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus.”

Namazie’s writing is certainly provocative. “There is no place for sharia in Britain’s legal system,” goes one typically blunt sentence of her writing, “just as there is no place for it anywhere.” But what was the evidence that she would incite hatred, whatever that means? As David points out, the email offered no justification of its central charge. Any campus activist who has got on the wrong side of a students’ union will know that this is characteristic. So is what happened next. “I asked if I could appeal it,” says David, “and they said yes, send the appeal to this email. So I sent an email, and two weeks after, I had still heard nothing. I sent another email and a week went past, and nothing.” The date of the event was coming close. David and Namazie decided to go public.

That was the turning point, he says. Namazie sent out a press release; well-known secularist allies spoke out; the event started to get national coverage. Richard Dawkins denounced the “cowardly Useful Idiots of Warwick”. The TV physicist Brian Cox and the science writer Ben Goldacre both said they would never speak at Warwick again. Steven Pinker and Salman Rushdie signed an open letter. Within a few days the SU had retracted the decision, saying that their proper procedure hadn’t been followed and their president had had no idea about the ban. That served to emphasise the problem: a single students’ union officer, without any oversight or accountability, can call off an event just like that. As David acknowledges, if you don’t happen to have Salman Rushdie and Brian Cox to back you up, an SU is hard to challenge.

The encounter with the censors inspired David to co-found a new campaign, #Right2Debate, which calls for the overhaul of no-platform policies. The campaign’s network draws on secularist groups like WASH, as well as student societies affiliated with the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam. #Right2Debate’s proposed policy, which they are urging SUs to adopt, tries to balance “the rights of students to invite speakers” against “the values of mutual tolerance and respect”.

On the proposed model, if a student society, or someone at the SU, objects to a speaker being invited, they can start a petition. If the petition gains 25 signatories, and if the SU accepts it, then the event becomes not a talk but a debate: a new speaker, who disagrees with the offensive speaker, is invited to share the platform. Instead of censoring the view, it has to share space with an alternative.

I have some doubts over #Right2Debate’s proposal. Campus censors aren’t usually the kind of people you can negotiate with: beginning with concessions may not get you very far. And regulations like these can stifle debate, simply by being such an effort to follow. It is hard enough to put on an event without also having to negotiate with the SU, and then reorganise everything: printing  new posters, dealing with the expenses of an extra speaker, and so on.

For another thing, debates have their virtues, but so do individual talks, and it can be a kind of soft censorship to turn one into the other. In 2012, UCL’s union passed a motion demanding that, if a society invited a pro-life speaker, they also had to invite one who was pro-choice. The regulation was challenged, and the SU’s own trustees had to explain that the motion was illegal. But it sounds rather like the #Right2Debate policy. Benjamin David gives a pragmatic response. “I would love to see unbridled free speech,” he says. “However, I think for the time being, we’re way off that position. We have to be diplomatic. And you need to appeal to those on what I call the regressive Left, to appease their views to be in a position where we can mediate. It’s a very fine line.”

It is easy to poke holes, but #Right2Debate’s proposal would make a difference, not least by bringing student unions’ decisions into the open. Moreover, it is presently the nearest thing to collective action against campus censorship. That is needed, because peer pressure has done a lot to weaken free speech. “I think people are willing to trade on some of their freedom,” says Elrica Degirmen, a physics student at Manchester University. The censors have made it socially perilous to step out of line. “I’ve had people cut me off completely, they don’t want any association with me.”

Degirmen’s crime has been to campaign for free speech, and to take practical action. Last year, she helped to organise a debate under the aegis of the Free Speech Society. The debate was entitled “From liberation to censorship: does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?” The invited speakers included Standpoint writer Julie Bindel, who has been blacklisted by the NUS because of her criticisms of the transgender rights movement. Instantly the SU stepped in to ban Bindel; when it was pointed out that another speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, could compete with Bindel for offensiveness, they banned him too. (The third speaker was Jane Fae, one of the most eloquent defenders of transgender rights.)

So the Free Speech Society went their own way. “We set up a proxy label, so it was the same society, but technically it was independent.” Being outside the SU’s authority, they went ahead and hosted the event. As students of the university, they didn’t need the SU’s approval. The problem, Degirmen thinks, is that SUs have too much power. If you have affiliated to them — and there are advantages to doing so — you can end up at the mercy of unaccountable student officials. “It’s not about universities, it’s about the student unions. They feel that they have the power to control what can and can’t be said.”

Manchester’s free speech society, perhaps not unlike the #Right2Debate campaign, has tried to find common ground with the SU — contemplating the idea of trigger warnings, for instance. Degirmen decided she couldn’t be part of it. “It’s far better to put up a very good fight for what you believe in than to just sacrifice your principles to gain the approval of the SU. The best thing you can do is just go out there and make your cause known. That’s the only way you can bring about change in student unions.”

She hopes that more university societies will try and live outside the SU system: there could be “independent student unions putting on their own events, and then you’ll see a rise in students actually making a choice about whether they want to go to student unions that are so censorious”. For Degirmen, there is no point negotiating with the SUs — no amount of criticism can make them contemplate that they might be wrong.

But there is a deeper problem: a culture in which students keep their mouths shut to avoid being ostracised. “I’ve held back from speaking on this issue for a long time, because I’m aware that what I’m saying could harm my career, what I’m saying could get me a lot of abuse.”

And she says the pressures of university life don’t make it any easier. “There’s a lot of rhetoric that says, at careers meetings and things like that, that employers search you on Google, if they find something that they don’t agree with, you won’t get the job.” Students make the calculation and decide to play safe. So why doesn’t she keep quiet? “I don’t have a career now — I have nothing to lose, really, unlike people like Tim Hunt, who are completely destroyed. I’m just starting out in life. I think students are in the best position to talk about these issues, in a way.”

If university leaders take a stand for free expression; if unaccountable student unions are challenged; if students can discover the joy and sheer relief of saying out loud what they think — there might yet be hope for free speech on campus. If none of that happens, then free speech really is in trouble, and not just at universities.

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