Concept of freedom speech: mouth of a person is sealed with an adhesive tape, closeup

The ‘invented’ free speech crisis

Free speech campaigners are fond of describing things as “Orwellian”. For me, one of the most compelling passages of 1984 is the description of “doublethink”: “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them.” The term doublethink is aptly applied to our current debate. Freedom of speech traditionally (and legally) means, broadly, that the state cannot punish or disadvantage individuals for expressing an opinion or belief. Increasingly, however, a small but highly influential group has attempted to claim the mantle of free speech to justify its opposite: expanding coercive state control over what we can say in public.

These “pseudo-free speech” activists might normally be dismissed as cranks. Yet they exercise substantial influence over our government and laws. Their current focus appears to primarily be on universities. The 2019 Conservative manifesto contained a promise to “strengthen… free speech in universities”. Last week the universities minister Michelle Donelan threatened legislation to protect “free speech” in universities. On the same day Andrew Lewer MP organised a letter signed by 21 Conservative MPs calling on the prime minister to crack down on “censorship” in higher education. The letter was based on a report by the right-wing Adam Smith Institute claiming that free speech is under threat on campus. Two days later David Davis introduced a ten-minute rule bill, which would allow the government to fine universities that permit students to deny a platform to racist and homophobic speakers.

In their seminal study of how elected leaders can subvert democratic values, Harvard’s Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe how “elected autocrats” use “invented crises” to expand their own power. While it may be premature to apply Levitsky and Ziblatt’s entire thesis to the UK, the “crisis” in free speech is decidedly invented. When one drills down into any example of “censorship” decried by pseudo-free speech activists, it becomes clear that these are not “attacks on free speech” but, rather, examples of traditionally privileged individuals being treated like everyone else.

Just a few examples can illustrate this point. The ASI’s contention that Peter Tatchell had been “no platformed” amounted to nothing more than an NUS representative declining to appear at the same event. In fact, according to the government’s own figures via the Office for Students, in 2017-2018 just 0.1% were blocked. A study of 10,000 student events in 2020, by the Higher Education think tank WonkHe, found just two instances of “no-platforming” (one involved a convicted fraudster and the other Jeremy Corbyn).

In 2017, the Telegraph claimed, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”: The student had done no more than put in a request for some non-white authors to be included in the (entirely white) curriculum. Matthew Goodwin, one of the most high-profile proponents of the pseudo-crisis, claims that his “academic freedom” is infringed because of his right-wing views. Yet, as an example, he offers little more than the time a colleague described him as “problematic”. Professor Kathleen Stock’s warning that the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall had “politically captured every academic institution in the UK” turned out to be mainly a complaint that some institutions had adopted the charity’s “Diversity Champion” kitemark.

Another version of the pseudo-crisis is the claim that “cancel culture” has made those with right-wing views feel “afraid to speak out”. Given that the majority of the UK’s media, its best-funded think tanks, and its government all-platform right-wing views, this contention appears somewhat strange. Nevertheless, it is repeated in a recent report by Policy Exchange. Given, however, that pseudo crisis narrative is repeated in most news outlets and across social media, Policy Exchange’s results could just as easily be the result of perception as reality.

At the root of the pseudo-crisis narrative are two conflations. First, of “speech” with “platform”. Speech is a right, platform is a privilege. Universities and students unions are independent organisations and are entitled to offer their platform to whoever they choose. Similarly, Stonewall is entitled to put whatever conditions it wants on use of its kitemark. Davis, in introducing his bill, complained that various colleagues had been “no-platformed”. But Davis and his friends have no more right to speak at universities than I have to perform on Strictly Come Dancing: Both are limited platforms (i.e., not everyone can be included), and both belong to independent organisations.

The second conflation is of “censorship” with “criticism”. Professor Stock claimed, in the Mail on Sunday (not a platform that is generally offered to those with contrary views) that colleagues who signed a letter criticising her OBE were trying to “bully” her “into silence”. But Professor Stock’s colleagues are entitled to just as much freedom of expression as she is. If they want to use it to criticise her, that is their prerogative. The nature of free speech is that some people will have views you don’t like.

There are, of course, real threats to free speech in the form of online bullying and threats of violence that many (particularly women and people of colour) experience. These, however, do not appear to be a focus for pseudo-free speech activists and are not touched on in Davis’ bill.

The crisis might be invented, but it is being used to justify a very real expansion of state control over universities. Roy Jenkins, a former home secretary and chancellor of Oxford University, once said: “It is difficult to think of any field of human endeavour in which central regulation is a greater enemy of excellence than that of the organisation of the teaching and research of universities.”

Yet central regulation is exactly what we are getting. In the 1980s the Thatcher government stripped universities of the power to determine how their funding was distributed, handing it instead to ministers and officials. The Cameron government eliminated funding for the humanities (coincidentally a discipline that commonly produces criticism of the state). Since 2015, universities have been forced to crack down on political dissent. The government has compelled them to ban events such as a panel on Kurdish political struggles at Cambridge and events supporting rights for Palestinians at Exeter and the LSE. It may be coincidental that universities and students unions have traditionally been centres of political opposition to Conservative governments.

Davis claims his bill will require universities to “uphold freedom of speech”. But such a duty already exists under both the Education Act 1986 and the Human Rights Act 1998. It seems, however, that Mr Davis’s bill will redefine the existing duty so as to require universities to police their academics and students. This will, in effect, force them to give a platform for speakers of whom the government approves. Mr Davis’s bill may be just the start. The Lewer letter calls on the government to ban student unions (the leadership of which is directly elected by the students) from engaging in activities that the government considers “political”. The report on which it is based appears to recommend using the coercive power of the state to break up unions that don’t conform to the government’s definition of acceptable student activities.

These are real threats to freedom of speech. They are justified on the basis of imaginary threats. As Levistsky and Ziblatt put it: “One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defence of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.” War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Free speech is censorship. Censorship is free speech …