Liberalism and Freedom of Speech in universities

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill moves slowly through Parliament, Liberal Democrats are having to grapple with contested assumptions about freedom of speech and its limits. This is a culture war bill. The polarization of American politics is seeping into Britain. Britain has become a far more liberal society over the past 50 years. We must resist attempts to push the clock back.

The Bill starts from the assertion that universities are incapable of defending free speech. It asserts that a new ‘free speech champion’ and a new right to sue universities are required to restore this freedom for those (staff, students, or visitors) who claim to have been denied the right to speak. It follows Policy Exchange papers, and articles in right-wing papers, that assert that university staff are now overwhelmingly left-wing, that they indoctrinate their students, and that academic culture has a chilling effect on staff who hold divergent views.

The Bill is highly derivative of American Republican tactics and assumptions. It’s stoked by media, including the Telegraph, Mail and Spectator, publishing increasingly sharp criticism of universities and their courses, while covering every detail of a small number of confrontations on campuses. Increasingly anti-intellectual elements in Tory thinking media assert that universities should now be cut back, that training is more important than education, and that the subversive quality of academic teaching is to blame for so few young people voting Conservative.

Freedom of speech, and the toleration of open debate and diversity of opinion, are at the core of Liberalism – from John Locke’s ‘Letter concerning Toleration’ through John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ to current campaigns for open government and reform of the libel laws. Liberalism celebrates reasoned debate, respect for evidence, willingness to respect the views of others. All of these are now threatened, not only by authoritarian governments but also by the polarization of public debate in the USA and elsewhere, by trolling on social media, and by powerful and partisan media corporations. There’s rising intolerance on the left as well. Cancel culture is not an invention of the right. It’s a student surge on American campuses to suppress divergent opinions that has spread over here. In resisting the illiberal right, we need also to avoid becoming too close to the illiberal left.

Liberal Democrats in Parliament will vigorously resist the government’s attempt to impose new regulations and penalties on universities. We recognise that No.10 wants to portray academics (and students) as an arrogant and unpatriotic intellectual elite to distract voters from corruption and economic blunders. But what do we regard as the limits to free speech? How tolerant are we prepared to be of arguments we find offensive? Liberals should hold as much space as possible for dissent from conventional wisdom, so long as it does not deny reasoned debate and deteriorate into invocation of hate and violence. An open society is not compatible with claims to a right not to be offended. But Liberals differ sharply from Tories and Republicans in caring about the voices of the vulnerable as well as the powerful. We have been nonconformists for 400 years.

There are three issues being used to support the argument that free speech is under threat:

  • History, including statues and memorials, and the ‘decolonization of the curriculum’
  • Israel-Palestine.
  • Sex and gender.

Attitudes to Brexit are not far below the surface, with a small number of academics claiming that they are discriminated against in appointments and promotions on account of their Brexit-patriotic views.

Right-wing politicians often attempt to close down debate on Britain’s history by branding alternative views unpatriotic or Marxist.

Defenders of Israeli government policies on settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem sometimes shut off reasoned criticism by labelling it anti-Semitic.

The sadly embittered conflict between trans activists and gender-critical feminists is driven by fears on both sides: fears that gender-critical arguments disguise full-blown attacks on trans rights, fears among an older generation of feminists that the ‘safe spaces’ they have won are being eroded. Both sides fear that the other is being exploited by malign forces.

Liberals will instinctively support diversity and the rights of minorities against those who would push back their rights. But we should also have some sympathy and understanding for those who find acceptance of new elements of diversity difficult. We should work to persuade and help them understand the issues.

The much-publicised incidents at Sussex and a handful of other universities, however, do not provide evidence that the majority of UK universities are dominated by left-wing students and activists.

Calls within our party to expel those who do not agree with every element of party policy contradict the principles of liberalism. I don’t think I have ever agreed with every aspect of our policies – and I’ve drafted two election manifestos.

The polarization of American politics between well-funded right-wing populism and an intolerant radical left is seeping into Britain. Right-wing media and think tanks, with close links to their US counterparts, want to provoke a culture war. There are those on the hard left who welcome such a war – and there are those who have swung from one extreme to another.

We should be wary of both sides in this intellectual – and anti-intellectual – conflict. We stand for an open, tolerant, liberal society.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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31 Comments

  • Steve Trevethan 21st Nov '21 - 6:27pm

    Thank you for a most important article!

    Might a significant part of this deadly serious problem be be an increasing move, possibly engineered, towards binary thinking, communicating and emoting?

    Binarism offers dramatic visual, spoken and written communication, which technology has increasingly facilitated, at the cost of accuracy, reality and possibilities of coming to some generally beneficial conclusions?

    Might we work to differentiate between arguments which seek to increase and spread knowledge and those which seek power and domination?

  • After reading the above article, I did the obvious thing which was to download the Bill from the Parliament website and quickly page through it. The text is only 24 pages.

    Having done so, albeit rather quickly, I find nothing to object to in the Bill.

    Both things below can be true at the same time:

    (1) The Conservative Party is seeking to stoke “Culture Wars” for electoral gain, just as the Republican Party does in the USA.

    (2) There is a real problem of free speech on university campuses.

    There is plenty of evidence for (2).

    A simple US example is the treatment of Charles Murray at Middlebury in 2017 when his host was injured and required medical treatment for concussion.

    https://www.middlebury.edu/newsroom/information-on-charles-murray-visit

    In the UK, we have seen students regularly make it impossible for the Israeli Ambassador to speak on university campuses. Most recently we have seen the way students at Sussex University persecuted Kathleen Stock.

    https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/nov/03/kathleen-stock-says-she-quit-university-post-over-medieval-ostracism

    Accordingly I welcome the Government getting tough about ensuring freedom of speech in higher education and in student unions.

  • Jack Nicholls 21st Nov '21 - 7:31pm

    I’ve long had the view, without discounting the existence of issues on some parts of the left, that no-platforming, cancelling, dispermitted speech and actual virtue-signalling all have a much longer pedigree on the right. McCarthyism, the unimaginable possibility of a US President who did not identify as a Christian, blasphemy laws, ferocious attacks on anyone who prefers not to sing the national anthem, don’t ask don’t tell (and its UK equivalent), pursuit in rhetoric and law of unmarried and single parents, the moral majority, ‘freedom fries’ and section 28- all places where people and groups were cancelled and deplatformed by right-authoritarian fiat using the apparatus of state and media. The conservative safe space has always been there for those who qualified. It also occurs to me that one thing that will unite free-speech liberals/libertarians and left-leaning safe-space supporters is opposition to a conservative DfE interfering in their efforts. Interesting article, thank you 🙂.

  • Tristan WARD 21st Nov '21 - 9:26pm

    “In resisting the illiberal right, we need also to avoid becoming too close to the illiberal left”.

    Well said. But this does not go far enough. We must, and will, resist illiberality wherever it exists. Illiberalism on the “left” is just as bad as illiberalism on the “right”. Both are anathema.

  • Andrew Tampion 22nd Nov '21 - 7:12am

    Like Mohammed Amin I see little to object to in this Bill. The only obvious concern for me is the provision for civil liability because it is not clear whether the right to bring a claim is limited only to people who have suffered damage as a result of their freedom of speech has been denied.
    That said legislation should only be brought enacted if there is a clear need. Anecdotal evidence such as the cases of Kathleen Stock and Germaine Greer are causes for concern. The Kathleen Stock case is worrying since the protestors concealed their identity so the cannot know whether they are actually students at Sussex.

  • William Wallace 22nd Nov '21 - 10:34am

    Mohammed Amin, Andrew Tampion: Would you trust this Government to appoint an appropriate person to be the Free Speech Champion in OfS, given other recent public appointments and the interpretation that Toby Young and others[put on free speech? And have you considered the costs to universities (and student unions) – and gains to lawyers – of the formal encouragement to sue them for alleged failure to ensure diversity in appointments and promotions as well as in debates on campus? Conservatives who preach deregulation imposing added regulation on universities to push them to the right.

  • “Calls within our party to expel those who do not agree with every element of party policy contradict the principles of liberalism. I don’t think I have ever agreed with every aspect of our policies – and I’ve drafted two election manifestos.”

    This is a very welcome piece. Thank you William. You’ve just placed yourself firmly on the liberal wing of the party.

    There is a very real determination within a faction of the party to purge those members who do not share some of their most fervently-held beliefs, and to make it clear to potential party members that they will not be made welcome.

    And they believe they are about to succeed.

  • Like @Mohammed Amin, I’ve also skimmed the bill and see nothing objectionable in principle. The extra bureaucracy is regrettable but I’m not sure that it’s avoidable, given that something needs to be done to ensure free speech is respected on campuses.

    @William Wallace “Would you trust this Government to appoint an appropriate person to be the Free Speech Champion” Well, the recent rejection of Paul Dacre suggests that the processes for these kinds of appointments are robust. And if they aren’t then surely you’d aim to improve the appointment process, not scrap the whole principle.

    …and gains to lawyers – of the formal encouragement to sue them for alleged failure…” Well yes, when you have laws, you tend to need lawyers! If you object to lawyers earning money then you’d presumably have to object to all laws!

    … imposing added regulation on universities to push them to the right|” I think that’s unfair. The bill is to protect freedom of speech. Right now the main threat to freedom of speech seems to be coming from the left, but the legislation will apply equally to any future threats to freedom of speech that might come from the right.

  • Chris Moore 22nd Nov '21 - 2:40pm

    @Toby Keynes:

    It’a also worth mentioning that at the nadir of the blind Remain Alliance madness in the summer of 2019, there were calls from within the party to expel our first-rate MP for Eastbourne, over a tactical difference in response to the Referendum.

    Also myself and others who tried to point out the folly of the then strategy often found our posts didn’t appear on various party websites. The sort of justifications received reminds me why “On Liberty” is still such a relevant text.

    The party itself needs to be clear that it is in favour of polite internal debate. It says it is: but doesn’t always live up to its ideals.

  • Andrew Tampion

    “The only obvious concern for me is the provision for civil liability because it is not clear whether the right to bring a claim is limited only to people who have suffered damage as a result of their freedom of speech has been denied.”

    Is having your rights denied not a damage?

    If perhaps your point is that you are wanting material financial damages as a requirement then you have set an unacceptable barrier. You will create a need for any speaker who may be targeted to demand a seaking fee to allow them to be protected.

    If your concern is a US liability issue, you are unlikely to need to worry. A judge would be effective capable of awarding £1 in damages if that was warranted.

  • If freedom of speech needs protecting in Universities then it also needs protecting in wider society. So can we expect in the future a: BBC (Freedom of Speech) Bill; Cricket Club (Freedom of Speech) Bill…

    I don’t see how providing a right to sue Universities will protect free speech and good luck trying to sue Student Unions – from memory many of the protests reported in the media in recent years weren’t backed by the Student Union they were simply vocal and organised groups of students. (Even in my day there were actions and events the Student Union didn’t support because of pre-existing legal considerations.)
    Interestingly, Parliament itself protects freedom of speech by preventing people from suing MPs for what they might say in the chamber…

  • “Calls within our party to expel those who do not agree with every element of party policy contradict the principles of liberalism. I don’t think I have ever agreed with every aspect of our policies – and I’ve drafted two election manifestos”

    We absolutely do not need to expect that everyone agrees with every aspect of our policies. But we can, and should expect that everyone agrees with our fundamental values.

  • That people may disagree with each other is not a problem. Intelligent and civilised discussion is the way ideas are developed and progress. But people who bully and harass others because they have a different point of view are not acting in accord with liberal values or the Members’ Code of Conduct. It is their behaviour that is unacceptable, not their opinion.

  • Andrew Tampion 22nd Nov '21 - 5:02pm

    William Wallace. I think that there are sufficent safeguards in place to ensure that a oerson appointed as Free Speech Champion will be independent. But your right to be concerned “quis custodat custodes?” apologies if my latin is incorrect.
    You are also right to raise concerns about possible litigation unless it is clear from the legislation that only people substatively effected by denial of free speech should be able to bring civil action. For vexample speakers denied a platform or organisers denied space for an event. But as others have pointed out sometimes defending free speech has a cost.
    My underlying concern is that liberals who oppose this legislation are putting them selves on the wrong side of the debate. The cases of Kathleen Stock , Germaine Greer and others are concerning. Some form of action seems justified and we should be making sure that it is fair and reasonable rather than trying to block the whole thing on a point of principle. Your objections seem to me to be rather like objecting to some form of voter ID which most people probably consider reasonable and indeed overdue.

  • On reflection, despite my earlier comments, I do feel a little uneasy at the way this legislation puts more legal burdens on Universities. If it is possible to avoid over-regulating, that’s invariably better. But at the same time, I feel we need to recognise that the Government are attempting to solve a real problem that does need solving. Sadly, it seems to me that, instead, the LibDem leadership are just doing a knee-jerk thing of jumping up and shouting, “Tories BAD!</i<" Maybe a more constructive response would be to work, including cooperating with like-minded Tory MPs, to see if there's any alternative way to ensure people with minority and unpopular views are not discriminated against or de-platformed and to prevent things like the awful hounding of Kathleen Stock from happening again, without onerous legislation. I'd hazard a guess that MPs like David Davis would be very receptive to that kind of approach.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Nov '21 - 5:56pm

    If freedom of speech cannot be defended in higher education, where can it? We also need change to our educational establishments so pupils learn at an early age to acknowledge the wide diversity of views on issues. This should accompany efforts to increase self confidence so all are not so easily effected by views contrary to their own.

  • William Wallace 22nd Nov '21 - 6:40pm

    But how severe or novel is the problem of free speech in our universities, and are universities themselves unable to manage it? UK universities made a mess of handling student protests in the 1960s. Their recent record has been much better, in often difficult circumstances. A small number of unacceptable incidents at 3-4 universities does not justify this degree of outside intervention. Where is the evidence of any widespread breakdown of freedom of speech in UK universities? I’ve spoken to several VCs and student unions, and found very little. What I have found is a lot of allegations in the Telegraph, Spectator, etc..

  • David Evans 22nd Nov '21 - 7:25pm

    William, You have made a point in your article that I really do think requires a direct explanation from you.

    In your article you say “Liberals will instinctively support diversity and the rights of minorities against those who would push back their rights. But we should also have some sympathy and understanding for those who find acceptance of new elements of diversity difficult. We should work to persuade and help them understand the issues.”
    I would argue, very strongly that the first sentence is is not liberal, but just being a soft touch. Surely you must believe that the Lib Dem way is for us to “seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community,” and not choose a side simply on the basis that it comes from a minority.

    You then say “But we should also have some sympathy and understanding for those who find acceptance of new elements of diversity difficult. We should work to persuade and help them understand the issues.” That comment ignores the distinct possibility that a ‘new element of diversity’ is not as unfailingly good as its proponents might portray it. In that case, Liberals working to persuade people, before having analysed and considered the new element’s appropriateness would be an abandonment of one of our core values and as such not liberal.

    Surely the first step should be to make sure that you ‘understand the issues’ on all sides, and not discard ‘old elements of diversity’ simply because a group is proposing a new element and apparently seek to substantially undermine the old element.

    My liberalism leads me to instinctively support the weak against the powerful, although I try to temper it with some analysis before coming to a view. One side in this debate does seem to have a very vocal and powerful lobby in favour of change. I am not at all sure this is the correct way.

    What makes you so sure in this case your way is correct?

  • @William Wallace: The small number of cases you cite are inevitably going to be the worst cases, because those are the ones that get publicity. In terms of the overall picture, UCU did some research, summarised by their 2017 Report into Academic Freedom, which found that legislative protection for academic freedom is much weaker in the UK than most EU countries. To quote them: “The reality is that, in the
    overwhelming majority of instances, UCU members report statistically significantly higher levels of systematic abuse of their academic freedom, across a wide array of measures, than their European counterparts. For example, 23.1% of UCU respondents (and 14.1% of EU respondents) reported being bullied on account of their academic views, 26.6% of UCU respondents reported being subjected to psychological pressure (EU = 15.7%), while 35.5% of the UCU cohort admitted to self-censorship, for fear of negative repercussions
    ” Self censorship seems a real concern because that will almost always, by its very nature, remain hidden. (Link: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8614/Academic-Freedom-in-the-UK-Legal-and-Normative-Protection-in-a-Comparative-Context-Report-for-UCU-Terence-Karran-and-Lucy-Mallinson-May-17/pdf/ucu_academicfreedomstudy_report_may17.pdf)

    Another example – purely anecdotal but suggestive of a wider problem is that I recall, a few years ago when I had some Uni connections, becoming aware of a growing issue of Student Christian Unions being denied access to Student Union facilities because of their religious beliefs concerning sex and gender (To be clear, I profoundly disagree with typical CU views in that area, but I’m also pretty sure that they should not be discriminated against because they hold those views). I’m not sure though to what extent that’s a problem today.

  • William Wallace 22nd Nov ’21 – 6:40pm:
    A small number of unacceptable incidents at 3-4 universities does not justify this degree of outside intervention. Where is the evidence of any widespread breakdown of freedom of speech in UK universities?

    The Academics for Academic Freedom site lists 30 ‘incidents’ in the last year alone, not including Sir Isaac Newton who was already no longer free to speak.

    ‘The ‘Banned’ List’:
    https://www.afaf.org.uk/the-banned-list/

    This is a list of individuals who were banned from speaking at universities in the UK and Ireland, or faced campaigns to silence them, or sack them for their views. Several are subject to multiple bans and not all bans are listed here. It also includes academics and others who were threatened with disciplinary action, disciplined or dismissed by their universities for their views (click on the names for further information). Listing individuals here does not imply that AFAF supports their views. We support free speech, no ifs, no buts.

    As with other forms of censorship, it’s the induced self-censorship which is likely to be a much bigger loss: the speakers who are never invited because an organisation doesn’t want the trouble (or extra security costs), the debating topics which are not submitted, or the papers which are not presented.

  • Andrew Melmoth 23rd Nov '21 - 12:50pm

    – Simon R
    It’s a bit disingenuous to quote the UCU without mentioning that they identify the government as the biggest threat to academic freedom and freedom of speech. Something that is hardly going to be remedied by a government appointed commissar deciding whose rights get upheld and whose don’t.
    UCU slams government free speech plans as Trojan horse for increasing power over staff & students

  • Andrew Melmoth: thank you – there are indeed major threats to academic freedom and freedom of speech in this country, and they’re pretty much all, especially in terms of the ones which actually succeed, coming from the government and their allies.

    The “left” are not the ones threatening to defund entire courses of study because they things they teach aren’t leading to sufficiently profitable careers for their students, or disagree with the government line, or both.

    The “left” are not the ones whose ministers are threatening the BBC with defunding if it reports unfavourably on the government, or being hyper-critical of the National Trust for stating the fairly boring and uncontroversial facts that Britain historically profited from the slave trade.

    The “left” are not the ones who made a large number of redundancies at Leicester University on the grounds of the precise topics being researched by the former staff. (26 compulsory redundancies, plus about the same again which were officially “voluntary”, at just *one university in one year*.) And they don’t make the right’s lists of “academics whose freedom of speech was suppressed” despite being the only UK ones who were sacked by their university for their research, and despite the fact that including them would let them triple or quadruple the size of their regular list for the entire decade. Multiple other universities are planning to make similar redundancies – the entire Archaeology department to close at Sheffield, 52 redundancies planned from English and History at Goldsmiths – these are people losing their jobs permanently in their hundreds, not one or two people being discouraged from giving a talk once because people might visibly disagree with them.

  • @cim. I don’t think you can really compare staff (or students) facing discrimination or pressure not to present controversial/minority viewpoints with redundancies that are being made because institutions need to cut costs. The former directly harms and runs counter to liberal democracy, whereas cost-cutting and controlling staff levels (awful though it is for the people involved) is something that does sometimes need to be done in any organisation, and does not generally harm democracy.

    Of course, if the staff were being selected for redundancy on the basis of their academic opinions, that would be wrong; and ironically this very legislation that you are objecting to is the thing that should prevent that!

    @Andrew Melmoth. Yes that’s interesting that she has made that statement that seems to contradict the research. But, when it comes to understanding the situation, if I have to choose between what appears to be a serious and carefully researched academic publication, and a political statement made by a union leader who occupies a – to some extent, political – role, would you really choose the political statement over the research?

  • Jayne mansfield 24th Nov '21 - 2:45pm

    @ Geoffrey Payne,
    Is it really the political right who support Kathleen Stock and are absolutely appalled by her treatment.

    I have been left of centre, socially liberal, and a supporter of lesbian friends and colleagues since the 1960’s. Kathleen Stock a right winger.

    A woman has been made so ill she cannot continue in her post because she argues her belief in the primacy of biology over gender and raises objections to what she views as the erasure of same sex attraction. That is shameful. Full stop.

  • Jenny Barnes 24th Nov '21 - 3:49pm

    It’s of interest to read a critical review of “gender critical” books by both Stock & Helen Joyce: https://criticallegalthinking.com/2021/10/08/review-of-helen-joyces-trans-when-ideology-meets-reality-london-oneworld-2021-pp-311-rp-16-99-and-kathleen-stocks-material-girls-why-reality-matters-for-feminism-london-fle/

    Whether poor quality academic writing is really good grounds for someone to leave their academic job is obviously debatable.

  • @Simon R: “Of course, if the staff were being selected for redundancy on the basis of their academic opinions, that would be wrong”

    Which is exactly what just happened in Leicester – redundancies were made in part on the basis of topics researched, journals published in, etc. And I don’t think the bill would have prevented that either – I don’t think there’s a way to interpret A1.6b that prevents a university from making a particular research group redundant (the Leicester situation) which wouldn’t also prevent them from closing an entire department (e.g. the Sheffield situation) or targeting redundancies more broadly at particular academic departments but not at all departments at the provider (e.g. the Goldsmiths situation) – which is clearly not the aim.

    @Geoffrey Payne: There’s also a big distinction in what actually happened to the two – Miller was sacked by his employer, while Stock resigned voluntarily having received the full formal support and backing of her employer.

    Certainly there were some student protests against Stock … the Bill under discussion ensures that Freedom of Speech must be secured for people including (A1.2c) students, which includes not denying them access to the site (A1.3) based on their views (A1.4a) – in other words, the Bill as written would have required that the university allowed the students to protest against Stock. It would have made absolutely no difference in her case, and if anything would have made it slightly harder for the university executive to give her all the support they did.

    It’s not at all clear that the Bill would have helped Miller keep his job either – the reason given for the sacking was failure to meet professional standards, which the bill does not exclude as a reason for sacking someone.

    This is a general issue with the Bill – even on its own terms, it’s useless: almost none of the commonly-cited cases of “denial of free speech” would have been affected, and yet despite government denials it *would* mean Holocaust Deniers couldn’t be prevented from speaking at a university … while the community centre a few yards down the road would happily retain the right to refuse bookings to them. Completely incoherent!

  • @Jenny Barnes – oh you posted Alex Sharpe’s review as if it holds any credibility. That’s a good one.

    There are some parts of this article I disagree with. A few of points are quite superficial. But all in all, I’m heartened to see a relatively balanced piece and an affirmation of actual liberal thought. More of this, please.

    I’m under no illusion that the government’s motivations for the bill are entirely virtuous – but if we oppose it, then it can’t be on the grounds that there aren’t any problems that do need to be addressed. There are serious issues with illiberalism on the left – including within our party.

  • For those not up to speed on the fine detail of such things the Alex Sharpe referred to above is a Professor of Law at Warwick University with a particular expertise in trans issues. By any reasonable and conceivable definition she is a ‘credible’ person to review books on the subject.

    https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/people/alex_sharpe/

  • Christian de Vartavan 30th Nov '21 - 8:46am

    “We recognise that No.10 wants to portray academics (and students) as an arrogant and unpatriotic intellectual elite to distract voters from corruption and economic blunders”. There is a famous photo showing Mr Johnson and his friends at university. I doubt that most were ‘scholars’ in any way. In fact they remind me of the spoiled bullies I have had to deal with in my two boarding schools.

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