The free speech area on the campus of Texas WomAn’s University, September 2015. Image: Michael Barera via Wikimedia Commons.

I write this piece about freedom of speech from the perspective of someone who has had to make difficult decisions about who can and cannot speak. As a Vice Chancellor I was accused of Islamophobia for closing an Islamic prayer room and of being soft on terror for allowing a so-called ‘hate preacher’ to speak. I had to deal with demands for safe spaces, for bans on Israelis and Holocaust deniers, and with claims that ‘academic freedom’ gave academics the right to comment on anything. I learned that dealing with freedom of speech issues is difficult and that we do not always have the right framework or language to enter into a constructive conversation.

I assume that most of those who object to certain types of speech, who demand safe spaces, run no-platforming campaigns, wish to exclude people from some countries, demand bans on particular religious speakers, or those that have certain opinions on gender and other controversial topics, do so because they honestly think that they are doing the right thing and that these speakers represent a real threat to their vision of what a better world might be. Simply saying that they (those that would ban) are wrong is unlikely to get us very far. Labelling issues as ‘woke’ or ‘anti-woke’ simply adds a layer of ideological adherence.

We often speak the language of rights. With rights often come duties: my right to be safe on the road comes with a duty to drive safely and a legal constraint not to go above 70 miles per hour. What duties come with the right to freedom of speech, and whose freedom of speech should we be concerned with? Voltaire (if it was he) has set a high standard: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ According to this famous quotation, freedom of speech concerns both my right to speak, but also the equal right of those I disagree with. Perhaps Voltaire could have added, ‘and we have a duty to listen courteously to each other.’ A right to speak is not worth much if we can only speak to ourselves, or those we agree with. I would argue that, alongside the right to speak, we should set out the duty to listen and, if we disagree, a right, perhaps a duty to say that we disagree.

Speech can cause or lead to real physical and mental harm. Most pogroms, lynchings, gay-bashings and racially motivated acts of violence start with words – whether drunken words in the pub, or demagogues on a platform. However, the proposition that we should ban all critical words has many dangers of its own: repression often starts with banning words. At the outer limit, speech that directly incites violence against others should be banned: there is neither a right to incite harm, nor a duty to listen to such speech. That decision is relatively easy. However, there is speech that attacks particular lifestyles, and may lead to harm by creating a negative perception of that lifestyle. We may have a duty to listen to such speech, in order to refute it.

Ultimately I am asking a question about which leads to a better society: banning speech that I do not like, or allowing it and trying to refute it. Banning does not abolish, it merely drives the sentiments into spaces where they are not challenged and may flourish. The words of a vaccine-denier, a homophobe, a misogynist or religious fundamentalist may cause harm; however greater harm may come from banning, both by driving such speech underground where it will not be countered, and by normalising speech bans.

Tolerant debate is not an automatic part of human culture. There have only been brief windows where it has flourished during the tens of thousands of years of humankind’s existence (for example, in classical Greece and since the Enlightenment) . Those brief periods of openness have produced the greatest flowerings of our understanding of our world and universe. Such examples suggest that the onus should be on those that want to ban or stifle topics to explain and justify why it is so important and beneficial to do so, rather than on those who want to preserve a culture of free speech.

As tolerance and engagement in courteous debate do not arise spontaneously, we need to create the environment for them to develop, and limit the existence of environments which promote and encourage intolerance. That means encouraging the skills of listening and debating. The environment I was brought up in treated argument as a sport: we would argue for the sake of arguing, sometimes for a position we did not hold. The argument mattered, not the arguer. Most of those I met at university had similar backgrounds, we stayed up late arguing. We cared, we had political and social convictions, but we also loved to argue. We believed that ‘the clash of ideas brings forth truth.’ Either I won the argument, or I lost, but had learned something, changed my mind and therefore had won knowledge. Something has changed in recent years. Identities and ideas have become more closely aligned, people have identified themselves with an ideology or belief system, and critiquing someone’s ideas has become viewed as an attack on the person. More people have come to University from a wider variety of backgrounds – a good thing. Many of them have come from backgrounds where argument and exposure to a variety of ideas is not the norm, indeed backgrounds where close adherence to a particular set of beliefs is the norm and it is seen as outrageous to attack the ideas.

We cannot expect those who have come from backgrounds where the opportunities to engage in debate and play with ideas are limited, or discouraged, suddenly to embrace the challenge, particularly if they feel their very identity is under attack. I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of ‘safe spaces’ for ideas. Ideas should be tested, questioned, developed and adopted or rejected. However, I have been fortunate in growing up in a safe space where new and challenging ideas were regularly introduced, and in the mutual understanding that a challenge to my ideas was not a challenge to me.

For those who have not had that fortune perhaps we should create safe spaces, with the proviso that they are there so that people can grow out of them. A safe space should not be forever. One of the challenges for Britain’s university system is how to bring together institutions based on open critical discussion with a changed student population which has different cultural experiences and assumptions to those that have hitherto been the norm. Indeed, students from backgrounds where debate is not the norm are even challenging assumptions about the purpose of the university: is it a gateway to a qualification and job, or a time and place for testing ideas and assumptions? I think that being at university without having your ideas tested is an opportunity wasted. We cannot force people to discuss and debate. We can, however, make discussion and debate a normal part of our culture, deliberately create the opportunities for it to happen, and be explicit that when you go to university you should expect to have your ideas challenged.

When I let a ‘hate preacher’ speak it was on condition that he spoke to a meeting which any student could attend. University Islamic Societies had invited in speakers who had engaged in ‘hate speech’ behind closed doors. Other universities had banned meetings, concerned about public order and reputation. Rather than simply ban speakers, I thought it important to change the basis of the event. Any university event should be open to any student without discrimination. Members of the Islamic Society and the LGBT Society sat in the same room, heard each other’s points of view and engaged in courteous disagreement, perhaps hearing something they had never heard before, and even changing their mind. I was proud of the students, and convinced that this was a better outcome than banning, with the result that the speaker would have spoken, unchallenged, at a private meeting.

I had previously closed a prayer room down because I could not be sure that hate speech was not occurring there. Indeed, some students had been prevented from using the room because they were the ‘wrong’ sort of Muslim. Furthermore I did not see why one group of students should be privileged over other in the provision of a dedicated prayer space. Offers of a ‘multi-faith’ space were turned down and protest prayers were held in the square outside the University and my office. Both my support for speakers excluded from other Universities and my closure of a prayer room were based on principles of opening out discussion, not closing it down.

This brings me to another thorny issue: that of academic freedom. What is its purpose, and why should academics have any protections over and above the ordinary citizen – if they should? Academic freedom concerns the intellectual independence of academics and universities so that received views and wisdom can be tested, and so that new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions can be proposed without putting the proposer’s career or life in jeopardy. It does not mean using your university position to propound support for ideas which lie outside your area of expertise and then claim that you have special privilege because you are an academic. What an academic brings to a debate is knowledge and evidence. The denier of the effectiveness of a particular vaccine who uses their academic position to criticise it, when they have no more understanding of its efficacy than the well-read lay person, is merely voicing another opinion, and has no right to expect to be supported if they use the fig-leaf of ‘being an academic’ to rant. There are good reasons for questioning the ethics, efficacy, and balance of risk of some vaccines, and we all have the right to take a stance, including an uninformed one, on these issues. Academic freedom, however, is based upon taking an informed stance.

Each of the issues I have touched upon demands a much more detailed treatment and, in the spirit in which this has been written, I hope that it sparks courteous debate. I have deliberately avoided a discussion of the limits of the ‘harm principle’ or the right not to be offended, as that would have required a very different approach. I could rightly be criticised for not discussing the limits to courtesy and tolerance. If there are times when we should be intolerant of others’ attempts to limit freedoms, then we should try to be intolerant courteously. There are also times when we may need to stop being courteous; however, those limits are rarely reached. Granted, it is hard to be courteous when faced with an angry racist outside a mosque or immigrant hostel. Questions of the limits to free speech are important and difficult for a freethinker.

The conclusion is that freedom of speech is not as simple as my right to express my ideas. Perhaps we need to think more about our duty to listen to other’s ideas and how that might bring about reciprocity. We need to change the basis of the discussion if we are to progress beyond hurling our freedoms at one another. Perhaps we should be more active in promoting freedom of speech as a social good, not just an individual right. As such it leads to more prosperous, resilient societies.

  1. “The environment I was brought up in treated argument as a sport” and “We believed that ‘the clash of ideas brings forth truth.’” That’s what I thought too and, yes, much has been lost.
    Julius correctly writes of the need for “tolerance and engagement in courteous debate” and suggest some ways in which this can be encouraged. But as one who spent a career teaching in schools I despaired and despair at the shift away from the teaching of ‘knowledge and understanding’, cultivated by discursive debate, to an emphasis on ‘skills and facts’ drilled by staff who deliver rather than teach a curriculum whose content is rarely open to question by its victims. It is logical that such a shift in emphasis results in schools being run by stressed managers (rather than educationalists) focused on Ofsted criteria appeasing results rather than education and the liberal, tolerant, freethinking sentiments that flow from it.
    We’ve lost a lot and the crisis in schools receives too little attention relative to other public services such as health. It is not just about funding.

    1. Hi Bob. Whilst I agree with you that there are problems with our education system – too many exams and accountability regimes that may stifle innovation and exploration you are attacking the wrong messenger.
      This is what the Ofsted framework actually says:
      Inspectors will make a judgement on the quality of education by evaluating the extent to which:
      leaders take on or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) or high needs, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life
      the provider’s curriculum is coherently planned and sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment
      teachers present subject matter clearly, promoting appropriate discussion about the subject matter they are teaching.
      teachers create an environment that allows the learner to focus on learning. The resources and materials that teachers select – in a way that does not create unnecessary workload for staff – reflect the provider’s ambitious intentions for the course of study and clearly support the intent of a coherently planned curriculum,
      Do you disagree with any of that?
      I have just visited three schools which had been failing, with falling numbers because no parents wanted to send their children there. They are now all rated “Good”, teaching Classics to pupils from very disadvantaged communities, with murals about Socrates on the walls. I have not yet met any “managers (rather than educationalists)” running schools. I have met some excellent managers who are also educationalists. Some of these schools were failing because of educationalists who were poor managers! Schools are complex places that require management.
      Declaration of Interest: I was chair of Ofsted and now chair an Academy Trust

      1. Julius, I think we agree about a lot, but let me try to expand my points where there are differences between us.
        What I was trying to get at is that the words often used in secondary educational discourse do not encourage a culture designed to encourage the liberal, discursive, educational experiences we both value. Let’s talk about teachers who explain rather than deliver and knowledge and understanding rather than skills and facts.
        The words of the Ofsted Framework are fine and dandy but what does inspection actually entail? Its harshly judgemental ‘done to’ approach encourages appalling stress, defensiveness and low risk taking. For headteachers it can be career ending…or, apparently, worse. Yes, there certainly have been some poor heads, but somebody trained and appointed them and they must have been good at something once. Why is it that they are often the only ones to suffer the consequences of their ways?
        Football managers accept dismissal as an occupational hazard, but soon find new jobs. It’s not the same for failed headteachers, they just seem to disappear. Can we afford to see professional people who were once deemed gifted cast out the profession?

        I am also troubled by the brevity of inspections, the dubious value of some evidence and the way it is gathered and the credentials of some inspectors. These all contribute to a sense of injustice and unfairness and risks driving those with a choice out of the profession. These are the very people we need to retain if we are to develop the educational experiences we both value.

  2. Would it be a good idea to give prospective students a written statement of principles regarding the limits of expression of opinions etc. at the institution and state that if this is not acceptable then the student should go elsewhere?

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