By Oliver Pike
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill designed to strengthen the duty placed on universities to promote and protect free speech on campuses is a step in the right direction. The introduction of new powers to hold both university administrations and student unions to account will ensure the flagrant disregard of free speech that has been seen in recent times is addressed.
The funding universities receive from the government and taxpayer along with the beneficial outcomes that arise from the free and open exchange of ideas amongst supposedly intelligent individuals make the protection of free speech on campus an issue of public interest. Universities are expected to be on the front lines of fresh academic thought yet nowhere else are politicised orthodoxies and limitations on speech more prevalent. This can also apply to academics as well as students. There have been countless cases (some high profile) of academics challenging orthodoxy and coming under attack from their colleagues.
The important role these institutions play also makes this particular sub-category of censorship even more worrying. Our countries courts, civil service, schools, and parliament are packed with graduates from institutions that no longer serve those who attend them as they once did. Political bias amongst lecturers has created echo chambers which have been further enforced by the mob (and sometimes institutional) no-platforming of anyone who might say something you wouldn't find in the politically correct tutorial group or seminar.
People no-platformed have included government ministers, celebrated journalists, leading feminists and a vast array of comedians, commentators and public figures. The justification appears to be that being presented with new ideas amounts to a form of harm being inflicted on the audience (who presumably volunteered to attend the event). In many cases, these people have not been invited to discuss the miscellaneous tweet or ill-judged comment they have been ritualistically canceled for but their wider views. George Galloway was notably attacked at Aberdeen university not for being a socialist (after all the people who attacked him identified similarly). Nor was he attacked for being a unionist or for being anti-war or even being critical of the Israeli state. He was instead attacked for comments he had made which were deemed sexist (he later apologised). Because of this mini-controversy students decided that he could have nothing more to contribute and nothing interesting to say. They also ignored the fact that if they were so upset by his comments they could have raised them and asked for an explanation.
The habitually outraged claim to want to promote tolerance and progress. They want people to educate themselves about a plethora of prescribed social issues and sometimes even suggest reading lists. However, this is "education" on their terms. Those who cancel and censor don't want to challenge bad ideas or refute them for the betterment of all involved or to change people's minds but rather to scare people into silence while imposing rules that they themselves can seldom follow. It is an exercise in claiming scalps to confirm the censor's virtue rather than work with the ideas of the person whose life and career may now be potentially ruined.
There are problems this bill cannot solve. During an interview with Stuart Waiton, we discussed these proposals, when they had been originally presented by David Davis MP, and it was suggested that a more effective approach is to simply push back against such forces. It is questionable how far this bill would go in shifting the prevailing culture on campus. Much of the harassment and bullying associated with cancel culture and mob outrage on campus is not under the control of the university administration or even student unions which have become institutions of political intimidation. The atmosphere of fear present in all corners of society and the stifling of debate are more intense on campuses because of entrenched political bias and increasingly radicalised youth politics. Such forces will not be addressed by this bill alone. Stuart suggested that people like David Davis tour universities and speak to break down this petulant fear of disagreement found amongst university students.
Even such measures will take time to create a real difference. The echo chamber effect is deep-rooted in campuses across the UK. Conservative politicians will speak to conservative audiences while Labour politicians will speak to labour audiences. When events encourage a cross-party audience those allowed to attend and speak about approved topics may be canceled at short notice after protests or security concerns. If they are not attacked or prevented from speaking in some other way, they might be asked one or two difficult questions by someone who took the time to challenge ideas rather than try and cancel them.
There is not the level of debate or thinking present at universities that there once was. Minds are being closed rather than opened and orthodoxies reinforced rather than held up to scrutiny. People are simply not prepared to engage with ideas outside the prescribed realms of thinking provided by schools and universities. However, If they cannot deplatform they might be more prepared for plan B (The free marketplace of ideas). This Bill is a step on the right path and similar steps should be taken wherever campus cancel culture rears its head.