Academic freedom and its enemies

On Monday 12th July the Commons will debate the 2nd Reading of the Higher Education (Academic Freedom) Bill.  This Bill, which closely follows the recommendations of two Policy Exchange papers and of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, provides for the Office for Students (OfS) to regulate and enforce rules on free speech within universities, and establishes the new post of ‘Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’ in the OfS.  It gives students, staff and visiting speakers the right to sue universities and student unions for alleged breaches of free speech, with fines to be imposed.  The OfS may also impose penalties.

This is a culture war bill.  The evidence that threats to free speech in universities are greater now than they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago is thin.  The Policy Exchange papers are heavily dependent on US sources and examples – yet another example of the increasing capture of English Conservative thinking by US Republican ideas.  Gavin Williamson decries an attempt to prevent an ambassador speaking at a university – but my wife as a Young Liberal demonstrated to block the South African Ambassador speaking in Oxford in 1963.  He deplores the withdrawal of an invitation to Amber Rudd by an Oxford student society; but I recall at Manchester University in 1968 students disrupting the Education Secretary when trying to speak at an official university event.

Student protests have risen and fallen with each new generation.  A small number of recent incidents have been blown up into an alleged crisis, which justifies giving the OfS extended regulatory powers, answerable only to the Secretary of State.

Policy Exchange calls this ‘a modest reduction in institutional autonomy … necessary to secure individual academic freedom’.  Others will see this as an attack on university autonomy, which will undermine the global standing of our university system.  The Bill includes clauses on ensuring greater ‘diversity of views’ among academic staff – which responds to protests from a small group of right-wing professors who claim that they and others are discriminated against in appointments, promotions, and research because of their views on Brexit.  Policy Exchange research concludes that university staff are overwhelmingly left-wing, drawing on a survey which shows that only 2 out of 10 academics voted Conservative or UKIP in recent elections.  So universities have become a stronghold of the dreadful metropolitan liberal elite, like the BBC, and government intervention is needed to correct the balance.

Liberal Democrats will be challenging the Bill clause by clause as it passes through Parliament.  We hope that Labour will also do so, although they have been shaky on some other ‘cultural war’ issues for fear of alienating their former base.  We also hope that some Conservatives will also resist the authoritarian tinges of ‘enforcing free speech’ – or at least the government’s preferred version of free speech.

We will welcome input from Lib Dems teaching in universities about their own experience of clashes on academic freedom and dissent.  There IS a current problem with the clash of competing versions of political correctness: the ‘cancel culture’ of the student left versus the individualistic populism of the right.  But universities are capable of handling the conflict without heavy-handed government interference. Tim Garton Ash and Ken Macdonald have drafted a declaration on free speech at Oxford University to focus discussion among students and staff.  Have any other universities failed to manage the conflicts that so often arise?  In my first year as a university teacher, Manchester University made an awful mess of coping with student protest – but nevertheless the Labour government did not intervene.  Does the alleged dominance of intolerant liberal viewpoints actively discriminate against Conservative teachers and researchers, ‘decolonising’ booklists and course structures  and having ‘a chilling effect’ on intellectual dissent, as alleged by Nigel Biggar, Matthew Goodwin and others?

The ‘Integrated Review of Foreign and Security Policy’ that the government published last winter proclaimed that Britain is ‘A Soft Power superpower’.  The elements of soft power it flagged included the BBC, the quality of our universities, the British Council, our record in aid and development, and the strength of our arts and cultural sector.  Yet all these are under attack by the populist right and its supporters within government.  Populism is an anti-intellectual, even anti-rational ideology.: hardly surprising that university staff tend not to be sympathetic.  The strongest indicators of pro- or anti-Conservative sentiment in the UK are now age and level of education.  It ought to worry the Conservatives that they have, in effect, lost the sympathy of the educated, and the young, as they have followed Farage down the road of ‘common sense’ and ‘gut feeling’.  Instead, ministers are reinforcing their attack on ‘the liberal elite’.

This is a bad and dangerous bill.  Its passage through Parliament will depend on the loyalty of backbench Conservatives, and their willingness to go against all their rhetoric on reducing bureaucracy and state interference by imposing regulatory intervention and excessive litigation on institutions that have a deserved global reputation.  Lib Dem parliamentarians will be active in exposing its weaknesses and internal contradictions.  Lib Dem activists should be pointing out to those they canvass that our right-wing government is following the Hungarian and Polish governments down the road towards authoritarian intervention in civil institutions.


* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Jul '21 - 4:47pm

    sledgehammer cracking a nut.

    But please realise, as Liberals and Democrats we can have different views. I think too often the party takes a left view on culture rather than a centre ground one. I abhor the Tv licence. I am appalled any support it as its a poll tax on viewing and a monopoly receives it. believe most of the c content not public service. support the BBc receiving a grant from the culture department. want to be put in no anti bbc category or pro bbc either.

    There’s a lot to learn from Liberalism re: pluralism!

    This implies we can debate with Tories not presume we afre against everything they say.

    Andrew Bridgen is more understanding re poor viewers , prison for not paying, and the tv licence than are Liberals!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Jul '21 - 4:49pm

    Sorry computer causing errors in typing as keys going potty!

  • Peter Martin 8th Jul '21 - 5:04pm

    I sometimes wonder how my own prospects would be in a modern university given my ‘lexity’ views. According to my son who’s a uni lecturer, they wouldn’t be good and it is better to keep quiet about anything that is even slightly potentially controversial. Even to express a view of some gender issues can invite reprisals.

    We should all be in favour of free spech but the so-called “progressive” left are giving scoring too many own goals at the moment.

    This kind of thing doesn’t help at all:

  • Barry Lofty 8th Jul '21 - 5:37pm

    Not having had the privilege of a university education I have set a lot of store on using my common sense and the occasional gut feeling, to get through life, but do not think that makes me a supporter of the Nigel Farage view of life, but never the less we seem to be on a very dangerous path in this country at the moment , one that could effect everyone of us?

  • Andrew Toye 8th Jul '21 - 5:39pm

    As wide a range of views as possible, but no hate speech. Hate speech is not free speech, because the people being abused by it are not made more free by hearing it. It’s only “free” in the sense that we’re free to assault or rob people. Given the psychological harm that hate speech can do to the victim, it is just as severe as a physical assault. No-one is free unless everyone is free.

    I have been thinking: why the so-called “far right” – the main perpetrators of this anti-social behaviour – belong on the political spectrum at all? Verbal abuse, spreading hatred and picking on people’s differences is not political activity – it’s just bullying. Kick them off all political platforms, along with this Bill.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Jul '21 - 5:46pm

    Two admirable friends herein, show why Lord Wallace, well meant, ought to take a staunch middle way!

    Peter says his own lecturer son feels he can’t express himself at his university. The link is chilling to the student being censored .

    Barry here says his common sense is not that of Farage, and yet has no university education that informs his views.

    In the culture wars we ought take the side of Liberty and common sense.

    Lord wallace should not disagree with the govt on every aspect of the Bill, though a piece of legislation, unnecessary , it is something we should be concerned about.

  • Brad Barrows 8th Jul '21 - 6:07pm

    An Abertay University was subjected to a 2 month investigation by University authorities for stating her opinion that ‘women have vaginas’ and that women should not have to compete against trans women in contact sports. She may have been cleared due to ‘insufficient evidence’ but surely it is ridiculous that she should have been investigated in the first place for stating an opinion during an academic discussion. It is worrying for those of us who value free speech.

  • Andrew Melmoth 8th Jul '21 - 6:23pm

    Lisa Keogh’s attempts to cast herself as a free speech martyr were rather undermined by the fact that the complaints about her behaviour were not do with her views on gender.

  • Alan Doherty 8th Jul '21 - 7:23pm

    Whole article about freedom of speech on campus and not a single mention of the multiple attacks on feminists and women’s rights? Of course there isn’t an issue if you deliberately choose not to see it.

  • “ I think too often the party takes a left view on culture rather than a centre ground one.”

    I agree completely, I think a lot of potential voters are looking for a party that is centrist across all issues both economic and social and therefore are quite put off by the way the Lib Dem’s in recent years have been increasingly left wing on social/cultural issues whilst having taken part in a right of centre austerity government.”Woke neo-liberalism” you might call it.

    I have seen examples of members who want to go even further, calling for no-platforming and even disciplinary action against members who say things that aren’t even that controversial. It is the wrong direction to go in.

  • Andrew Toye – and who defines what is hate speech? You? And what if you define it to be, any opinion you don’t like?

  • Andrew Toye 8th Jul '21 - 11:15pm

    I’m not a lawyer, but there are definitions which are quite clear cut, including discrimination and harassment (especially of ‘protected’ groups). There are borderline cases which so-called “far right” bullies exploit, staying just within the letter of the law (and are at constant risk of being called out). Saying that someone is inferior to us or should not live in our country/neighbourhood because of their race or other characteristics is clearly hate speech.

    I don’t like Conservative or Labour politics but know enough about them to know that they are not inherently hateful (George Osborne’s stereotyping of welfare claimants is ‘borderline’ in my personal view but does not refer to protected groups). So no, I would not say that everything I disagree with is hate speech.

    I think that universities etc should be free to decide for themselves on borderline issues (the main point of the article).

  • George Thomas 9th Jul '21 - 8:52am

    If I remember correctly from my days at university our written essays set out evidence, our conclusion based on that evidence and weaknesses/limitations to what had come before. I wonder how many of these controversial speakers are following that in their talks and how many are missing out the third part? I wonder how many are missing that it was the writer’s conclusion and not necessarily the definitive conclusion?

    Academic facilities may need to come into contact with different views but different views may need to better present with academic style of discussion. I wonder how much trouble could be saved if that did happen?

    To add one final point, in discussion about cancel culture at universities one example given is one society being told they had to pay for the additional security needed for a controversial speaker. That is not the speaker being cancelled and therefore the evidence used for “need to take action” is not always genuine.

  • Peter Martin 9th Jul '21 - 9:18am

    @ Andrew Mehmoth,

    “….the complaints about her [Lisa Keogh’s] behaviour were not to do with her views on gender.”

    So what were they about?

  • WHS – Hate speech is defined in law so there is clarity about what it means.

    There is a huge difference between derogatory speech designed to create a hostile environment on the one hand and on the other hand simply holding a controversial opinion.

    The concern about cancel culture is that it focuses on the latter and takes things out of their historical context eg taking books off reading lists that were long considered acceptable.

  • Jenny Barnes 9th Jul '21 - 11:20am

    oh, they are only in favour of free speech for views they agree with. Anything in favour of Palestine, or freedom fighters in the Middle East, would probably not be allowed. “Prevent guidance: (RHEBs are higher education, I think)

    10. Encouragement of terrorism and inviting support for a proscribed terrorist organisation are both criminal offences. RHEBs should not provide a platform for these offences to be committed.

    11. Furthermore, when deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups. In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where RHEBs are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated without cancellation of the event. This includes ensuring that, where any event is being allowed to proceed, speakers with extremist views that could draw people into terrorism are challenged with opposing views as part of that same event, rather than in a separate forum. Where RHEBs are in any doubt that the risk cannot be fully mitigated they should exercise caution and not allow the event to proceed.

  • Steve Trevethan 9th Jul '21 - 11:32am

    Well written Lord Wallace!
    Might we look at relevant matters beyond this bill too?
    Are the unstated purposes of it to restrict and influence freedom of speech, analytical thought and the development and transmission of ideas and attitudes the current H.M.G. does not like , irrespective of their possible benefits to our society?
    Might it be part of an unstated aim to “dumb down” initiatives, analysis and expansive discussion/communication in order limit thinking and communicational skills generally?
    Might it be part of a larger patter of moves to achieve citizen compliance which include:
    * powerful and continuing nationalism
    * dislike of human rights
    * identification of enemies, real and projected, to unify the citizenry
    * promotion of the military
    * supportive mass media
    * obsession with national security
    * increasing disparity of wealth
    * dislike of those who think differently
    * obsession with crime and punishment
    * cronyism and corruption
    You might see this pattern in the attached article.

  • William Wallace 9th Jul '21 - 12:13pm

    Alan Doherty, and others: In a short article there wasn’t room to list the particular issues that have become most sensitive and contentious. Trans rights and women’s rights are one of these; so is Israel/Palestine and the Holocaust; so is Brexit, still; also history and identity (and ‘decolonisation’); also the Prevent strategy and Islam. There’s a clash between competing versions of political correctness on (the similarly) intolerant) right and left. The issue is whether universities are capable of holding the space for open debate between these, or whether state intervention is justified or likely to be even-handed.

  • William Wallace 9th Jul '21 - 12:15pm

    Lorenzo Cherin: holding Andrew Bridgen up as an example of openness or liberalism is interesting, to say the least!

  • Andrew Melmoth 9th Jul '21 - 12:22pm

    – Peter Martin

    “As we have previously stated, the University is legally obliged to investigate all complaints.

    Contrary to misleading statements by some commentators who view this as a case about gender identity, Lisa Keogh was not subject to disciplinary action for expressing so-called ‘unacceptable opinions’ about gender identity, or any other topic.” Abertay University

    Some of the students who complained about her have outlined what she is alleged to have done on twitter. You can find out for yourself if you like but as she was cleared by the university I don’t think it is appropriate to repeat the allegations here.

    The most telling thing about this episode is how credulous many people are when it comes to obviously fake or misleading stories from the right wing media. If it honestly struck you as remotely plausible that a university would investigate a student for saying ‘women have vaginas’ you’ve lost touch with reality. Perhaps time to step away from the internet?

  • Peter Martin 9th Jul '21 - 1:26pm

    @ Andrew,

    You’re still not answering the question. What were the complaints?

    I’m sure the Uni has a responsibility to investigate but it shouldn’t take two months to throw out a frivolous complaint causing unnecessary stress to a young person. This is not a matter of left and right. It’s no more acceptable for the left to persecute the right than vice versa.

    I’m not sure why any University would think it has the right to impose different standards to those we all have to abide by as a matter of law. If she had broken any laws then, of course, it should have been a matter for the police to investigate and the procurator fiscal to prosecute.

  • @William wallace, post @12.13. We all realise that media reporting is not even handed. We have many examples of voices perceived to be from the right, or not sufficiently “on message” being cancelled; J.K. Rowling, Jordan Petersen etc. Could you give me an example of voices from the liberal left being cancelled, for I am not aware of them and would consider such censorship of views to be equally unacceptable.

  • “Hate speech is defined in law so there is clarity about what it means.”

    No it isn’t. The term “hate speech” doesn’t appear in any legislation or official documentation. There is no criminal offence of “Hate speech”. We rightly have laws banning inflammatory and threatening language, but both the term and the concept of “hate speech” are taken from the North American cultural (though frequently not economic) academic left

  • Oh, and just to make it completely clear I will quote the respected human rights lawyer Akua Reindorf in her review for the University of Essex entitled “Review of the circumstances resulting in and arising from the cancellation of the Centre for Criminology seminar on Trans Rights, Imprisonment and the Criminal Justice System, scheduled to take place on 5 December 2019, and the arrangements for speaker invitations to the Holocaust Memorial Week event on the State of Antisemitism Today, scheduled for 30 January 2020”, page 51, point 189, ““Hate speech” is not a legal concept and is not prohibited per se by UK law.”

    The document should be read by all liberals and Liberals. It makes chilling reading.

  • Jenny Barnes 9th Jul '21 - 4:19pm

    This article from the Scottish Herald

    contains a long statement towards the end from a university spokesperson explicitly stating that the complaint was not about her views about vaginas, but for “a complaint about the behaviour of Ms Keogh in class.” Doesn’t say exactly what the behaviour was or wasn’t. However, it would seem that Ms K. is doing the usual right wing free speech thing of loudly claiming on many platforms that she has been silenced.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Jul '21 - 4:49pm

    Lord wallace

    Andrew Bridgen supports concern on only the issue here, in a Liberal or liberal stance more in keeping with what this party ought feel. He is for decriminalisation of not paying tv licence.

  • Tristan Ward 9th Jul '21 - 6:32pm

    There is a very revealing phrase in the original article.
    It is “intolerant liberal viewpoints”.

    I do not understand how an intolerant view can possibly be liberal. The rights’s aim is of course to equate “intolerant” with “liberal”. The problem is that the language police are – who are not remotely liberal by any measure – are giving g the right far too much ammunition.

    Personally I’m with Voltaire .

  • @ Adam

    The definition of hate speech is contained within Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986, which makes it an offence for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”.

    The law has subsequently been revised to include language that is deemed to incite “racial and religious hatred”, as well as “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” and language that “encourages terrorism”.

  • Alan Doherty 9th Jul '21 - 10:15pm

    Lord Wallace – Universities have (sadly) shown on many occasions over the last few years that they aren’t capable of holding spaces for open debate – it’s their failure to do this which has opened the opportunity for government to take a role. I don’t particularly welcome this but can’t see how it can be avoided if we want to retain free speech if Universities (and other institutions such as charity boards, unions, and indeed political parties) fail to do their job and uphold their own supposed values. Only this week the University of Essex which was found by a report it set up itself to have unfairly treated and silenced female academics has now doubled-down, effectively disowned the report, apologised to the bullies and shown it has learnt nothing. Look also at cases from Bristol Univ to Edinburgh Univ where female students and academics and being bullied and harrassed.

  • William,

    I am sad to have to tell you, but you are only looking at the easy side of this argument – The side that says “This is a Conservative proposal. It affects Universities, which provide higher education, something most Lib Dems have benefitted from and so wholeheartedly support. Therefore, it must be bad.”

    However, this sort of shallow, blinkered logic leads inevitably to the absurd conclusion you reach when you say ‘But universities are capable of handling the conflict without heavy-handed government interference.’

    William. That is not true. And you know it in your bones. Just look at Liverpool University which caved in to ‘trendy leftie labour’ pressure to rename Gladstone Hall (a good liberal who fought against evil of slavery for all of his later life). They gave in because a mass of those self proclaimed progressive activists targeted his name and sadly little or nothing was heard from senior Liberal figures to defend him.

    Do not let people pretend that this was deserved because of his speeches as a young MP when he was much more under the influence of his father, unless you don’t believe in redemption and that the vehemence with which he opposed slavery throughout most of his life doesn’t count.

    Likewise, do not believe the massively one sided analysis in the articles on the BBC website


    This was a targeted attack on a liberal to expunge him from history in the city he was born.

    William, The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society. Liberal Democracy is under attack from both sides, both Labour and Conservative, but if we meekly give in to the left and ignore its hatred of us, and instead simply oppose that of the Tories, our party will not recover to where it should be.

  • I think the key issue about free speech and academic freedom is the rules under which our institutions operate. Some of the comments show how difficult it can be to establish the law of the land in a way that enables freedom while trying to prevent speeches that can so stir up hatred that they lead to great harm to particular groups or individuals. Since this is difficult to define in law, our laws should err on the side of freedom but make it clear that balanced debate takes place, so that if the law risks allowing harmful speech it also requires the opposite views to be heard and debated.
    However, the most worrying part of recent government proposals is the power they give to individuals to decide on particular cases, such as government ministers or (in the case of protests) police chiefs. Surely these powers under any law, should be those of properly constituted publicly accountable bodies and the courts, not individuals and particularly not party political appointees.

  • Let’s talk about academic freedom then.

    Perhaps Leicester University, where the university management is targeting trade union officers and those who publish papers critical of mainstream business management research. Academic freedom, provided you support the management?

    Or Churchill College, Cambridge, which shut down its “Race and Empire” research group after complaints by wealthy donors that it was being insufficiently deferential to Churchill’s legacy. Academic freedom, so long as it doesn’t upset the donors?

    Or at Liverpool University, attempts to make bioscience researchers redundant, based on flawed metrics for what they publish. Academic freedom, so long as your research is the sort to churn out twenty papers a year?

    Or at many other universities, arts and social science departments are being closed – because they’re not as profitable as science and technology research. Academic freedom … so long as it’s something government or industry is willing to fund?

    Or outside universities, the campaigns currently being waged against the National Trust for daring to point out that some of Britain’s historic wealth came from slavery. Or the packing of museum trustees, national broadcasters, and so forth – previously largely apolitical positions – with government loyalist appointees. Academic freedom if you agree with the government?

    The only academic freedom the government cares about is that racist and transphobic speakers – and lets not use euphemisms here – are able to speak not only with the same rights I have, but with an additional right that universities must give them use of their facilities, must prevent public disagreement with their views, and must object to students protesting against them. As Voltaire famously said “I may disagree with what you say, but I’d never be so rude as to say so.”

    Much appreciation to Lord Wallace for standing up against this – and I hope the Lib Dems will also join the fight against the genuine threats to academic freedom the government is leading or supporting.

  • @ Marco

    “The definition of hate speech is contained within Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986, which makes it an offence for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”. ”

    So will you please point out to me the phrase “hate speech” because I don’t see it anywhere.

    The term “hate speech” includes a great deal of language which is not illegal in any way shape or form. Indeed, if I may once again quote Akua Reindorf:

    The right to freedom of expression is contained in Article 10.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”), which is enshrined in domestic law in the Human Rights Act 1998:

    Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority […]…

    …The Article 10.1 right to freedom of expression is fundamental, but it is not absolute. Speech which seeks to abuse the rights and freedoms in the Convention is excluded from the scope of Article 10.1 altogether by Article 17. This Article prohibits the gravest form of hate speech, such as Holocaust denial 22 . The Article is only applicable on an exceptional basis and in extreme cases where it is immediately clear that there is an intention to achieve ends which are clearly contrary to the values of the Convention, such as stirring up hatred or violence. It does not cover, for instance, vulgar homophobic slurs.

    Further, Article 10.2 provides that speech which might otherwise be protected by Article 10.1 may be subject to interference by way of formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties in certain circumstances. Restrictions may only be imposed on speech under Article 10.2 when a constraint is both (a) prescribed by law and (b) necessary in a democratic society in order to pursue one of a limited number of aims…

  • …There are several UK laws which may be relied on to show that a restriction of speech is “prescribed by law”. These include prohibitions on harassment and discrimination, limitations placed on types of expression which might be described as “hate speech”, the criminal prohibition on acting in a disorderly University of Essex Events Review Report | Legal and Regulatory Framework manner for the purpose of preventing a public meeting, certain public order offences and the Prevent Duty.

    Importantly, there is a difference between unlawful harassment or “hate speech” and speech which may be merely offensive, shocking or disturbing, or even speech which may be dangerous or irresponsible. Although speech which is intended to inform attracts more protection than speech which is intended to offend 28 , offensive speech may still be protected by Article 10.1. This is because if the right to free speech did not protect “the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative“ it would be “not worth having”. It can be difficult to draw the line between harassment or unlawful “hate speech” on the one hand and merely offensive,
    shocking or disturbing speech on the other.

    Indeed, she points out that a deal deal of what many “liberals” term “hate speech” is actually protected by law. Hence her being asked to conduct the review by Essex University – they got themselves into hot-water.

  • Peter Martin 10th Jul '21 - 1:19pm

    “…racist and transphobic speakers….”

    Hang on a minute. We all would probably support overtly racist speakers being kept out of universities, but what is meant by ‘transphobia’ ?

    It’s a genuine question BTW. I probably haven’t come to a firm opinion either way, due to not having given the issue enough thought, but I do find it troubling to read that Germaine Greer is put into the same category as Nick Griffin.

    So have I got it right that Ms Greer is PNG at most UK unis?

  • Peter Martin 10th Jul '21 - 1:42pm

    It’s not just Germaine Greer. That nice Labour, but almost Lib Dem, member for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield also seems to have got herself into the firing line over comments on the transgender issue.

    Rosie and I would have plenty to disagree over, being on opposite wings of the Labour Party but I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to silence her right to speak at whatever venue she liked.

  • By transphobia, in this context, I mean the belief that trans people are inherently threatening, should not exist, certainly should not visibly exist or receive any legal protections, and so on. Recycled “Section 28” era rubbish, often funded by the US evangelical right, with a slightly different target in the hope that it’ll be more socially acceptable this time round … attempts to shut down trans-inclusive services or to ban medical treatment supporting trans people … that sort of thing.

    Greer’s views in some areas are somewhat outdated (which is absolutely normal for an academic in almost *any* field who has been retired for years!) and would certainly be disagreed with by a lot of more recent researchers, but no, Greer is not in the same category as Griffin. (Greer probably doesn’t get many invites nowadays because she’s long-retired, of course, but that applies to most long-retired academics)

    It’s also worth saying that there’s a difference here between university senior managements (who historically have allowed both Greer and Griffin to speak) who are generally very permissive about who gets to speak … and groups of students and staff at the universities who might protest, or organise counter-seminars at the same time, or simply not show up so that Griffin is talking to about three people – which doesn’t actually prevent the person speaking at all, but gets counted as the same “cancel culture” by people (like the government) wishing to insist that there’s a problem.

  • “I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to silence [Duffield’s] right to speak at whatever venue she liked.”

    By and large that’s not a right which has ever existed, not even for MPs, and certainly not for the vast majority of the population. She’s not going to be getting the keynote at the Conservative Party conference any time soon, for example. Equally, she’s got an article right there in one of the UK’s main newspapers – I don’t think she’s at risk of not having her voice heard even if a university doesn’t invite her to speak.

    If venues wish to give Duffield a platform, then they can [1]. Equally, if venues don’t wish to do so, then it would generally be pretty bizarre to force them to (and lead to some *really* strange precedents if it applied to everyone, not just particular controversial MPs – the Times would be getting a few articles from me a day if it was legally required to publish them!)

    [1] There may be consequences for doing so, of course, at least until the Compulsory Subscription To The Times Act passes. No-one is obliged to read her comments or buy the paper it’s in, if they don’t want to.

  • @ Adam

    The law does not need to say “this is hate speech” because it clearly contains a definition as to what forms of speech are illegal.

    All types of criminality are to some extent subjective and need to be defined.

    For example what is theft?

    It is not entirely clear cut so the courts need to decide. Sometimes they will get it wrong but that is not a reason to dispense with the law.

    The law on hate speech provides as much clarity as any other criminal law. It is not the case that “liberals” as you call them can just decide for themselves what is hate speech.

  • Peter Martin 11th Jul '21 - 3:30am


    I doubt if GG or RD would argue that trans people shouldn’t exist or that they shouldn’t receive legal protections. But, they may well question their extent and also the extent to which the they should be considered trans women.

    Universities are not single entities in the same way as a political party. So to point out that RD would unlikely be invited to speak to a Tory or even a LD conference is a facetious argument. Universities are communities. There is likely always goioing to be some grouping which is going to issue an invitation to them or to someone with similar views.

    My view is that there should be no impediment. I would expect there would be many, like myself, who aren’t too sure either way and do need to hear both sides of the arguments.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Jul '21 - 9:19am

    “the individualistic populism of the right.” what? The “us vs them” attitude of the culture-war populist right is the exact opposite of individualism.

  • James Fowler 11th Jul '21 - 10:01am

    This is a culture war bill from the ‘Right’, but it’s only been made possible (necessary?) by the steady drip of intolerant and slightly sinister postures struck by some ‘Left’ activists at some campuses.

  • @Peter Martin

    In the latest year for which figures have been published (2017-18) there were 59574 invitations issued to speakers, and a mere 53 were rejected by the collected university authorities. That’s an average of about one third of a rejection per year per university (or one rejection by a university every three years), and that includes rejections due to “not filling in the forms properly” or “being a pyramid scheme scam” … and of course will also include rejections legally required by the Prevent legislation.

    So it looks like, when it comes to allowing anyone people are interested in hearing from to speak at universities … there’s basically no issue already.

  • I think there’s a big difference between the university authorities, which are supposed to be a neutral institution, rejecting a speaker invite given by an academic department, which is a power they should use judiciously and carefully – and cim’s figures certainly suggest that they are doing exactly that – and student unions rejecting a speaker invite that comes from a student society. Student unions are democratically elected by students. They have the perfect right to reject a speaker for whatever stupid reason they come up with – as long as their reasons are not discriminatory in breach of the Equality Act, of course.

    If the Conservative Student Society invites a Tory MP to speak and the student union overturns that invite because they don’t want Tory MPs in the union, then I can think that they are being idiots, and if I were a student there then I would vote against that. But I don’t think that anyone should regulate to stop them. Student politics is, amongst other things, a valuable teaching tool for future politicians. But they don’t learn anything unless they have the ability to make a mistake and then find that the mass of students notice that this is being done in their name and vote against it. Yes, student turnout in union elections is very low: so go and run a campaign and convince them to let Amber Rudd speak and get them to turn out and vote out the union officers who were blocking her.

  • Nigel Jones 13th Jul '21 - 2:07pm

    James Fowler is right to point out that certain actions by hard left people has given this government support for its restrictive reaction, but Cim shows that the number of such cases is very small; so small that it is clear this government will use any excuse to change the law to increase right wing power. It is part of a wide agenda that Lib-Dems and the Labour party should be shouting more about and is similar to that of the Republican party in the US.

  • Cim – you talk about the number of invitations to speakers rejected by universities – what about the number of invitations accepted but later rescinded or where the speaker has chosen to withdraw because of pressure from students? Are they included in those figures?

    Do I think the Conservatives are trying to introduce this bill for genuinely noble reasons? Not really, no. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems with free speech right now – at universities but also with the left more generally. For some ‘hate speech’ has become code for pretty much anything that they don’t like. It’s harmful to the idea of free and open debate – which is something that liberals should be championing.

    I mean somebody above has referred to Lisa Keogh as ‘right wing’. I’ve seen no evidence of this whatsoever. Though even if it were true, would it really matter? Because yes, she was investigated for comments she made about women in a seminar on transgender issues. It has been extensively covered by many sources and she has given video interviews stating what was actually said to her and by her during the disciplinary process. Reading the full statement from the university, it is both vague and contradictory. It is also misleading, considering the actual letter sent to her by the university confirming that the allegations made against her (and what those allegations were – primarily that she had made comments ‘which could be construed as discriminatory’) were not being upheld has been published online:

    It can be read here:

  • Andrew Tampion 14th Jul '21 - 4:32am

    Richard Gadsden. “If the Conservative Student Society invites a Tory MP to speak and the student union overturns that invite because they don’t want Tory MPs in the union, then I can think that they are being idiots, and if I were a student there then I would vote against that. But I don’t think that anyone should regulate to stop them.”
    So if a Conservative led Student Union barred a Liberal Democrat MP from speaking for no reason other than that they didn’t want Liberal Democrat MP’s in the Union that would be OK? Really?

  • @Andrew Tampion
    The distinction here is surely between “okay” and “should be legislated against”. Barring Lib Dem MPs from use of SU facilities is probably not a sensible thing to do … equally, SUs are supposed to be democratic membership organisations so if a majority of them vote to do that (which is fairly implausible even for a Conservative MP!), I think that it’s more important to let them.

    It’s not as if the Lib Dem MP, or Lib Dem students at the university, will be seriously affected by not being able to hire the Students Union building for the talk – the university itself will have plenty of suitable rooms to host it, and there are also likely plenty of other venues available in the surrounding town or city.

    The government could legislate against all sorts of things which are merely “bad ideas” but at some point – especially for a Liberal society – “letting people make their own mistakes” is also an important principle.

    “What about the number of invitations accepted but later rescinded or where the speaker has chosen to withdraw because of pressure from students?”

    Lets look at that from the other side. Are you saying that not only should person X be allowed to speak at a university, but no students at that university should be allowed to criticise or peacefully protest against person X’s views or actions? If you’re not saying that, then what sort of protection against speakers withdrawing voluntarily after hearing that students might disagree with them can the law possibly provide?

    At any rate, if there was any significant amount of this happening, those speaking in favour of this legislation would be able to point to several examples from the last year, not just the same three or four cases dating back to 2010, so I assume it’s also included in the totals.

  • A number of comments have been removed because they referred to a disciplinary case in detail.

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