It has been a glorious couple of weeks for defenders of freedom of speech. Now theres even a union to join, led by father of the chapel Toby Young. You can imagine it: robust white men brandishing copies of John Stuart Mills On Liberty and bellowing ideas must fight it out in the marketplace of ideas.
But why, and why now? It seems to be part of a backlash against supposed censorship and political correctness, to say nothing of leftwing bias, bleeding over the university sector like a cheap red sock in a hot white wash. Policy Exchange, the rightwing thinktank, has just published a report, Universities at the Crossroads, intimating that the sector has lost the trust of the entire nation. Oops. That was careless of us.
They accuse: Following a very vocal and at times highly partisan participation in the Brexit debate, as well as an increasing number of unnecessary rows over freedom of speech, there is a growing risk that some on the right may begin to see the sector as actively and irredeemably opposed to conservative and British values.
Freedom of speech on campus, they say, has been pushed into the background by high-profile culture wars, and its time to reverse the trend. Limiting speech on campus isnt a good look. Mill, notoriously, argued if an idea is wholly or partially true, then cutting it off will obstruct progress. But even false ideas should be given voice. Otherwise truths will be become dead dogmas and we will lose our ability to defend them. Conclusion: never obstruct free speech. Yet others, sotto voce, intone: Its all a bit more complicated than that.
Mill himself, like many thinkers, distinguishes freedom of thought from freedom of expression, which, he argues, can be restricted if it is likely to cause serious harm, such as immediate violence. Hence the prohibition of hate speech and the offence of inciting racial hatred.
The question, then, is not whether there should be limits, but where they fall. This is the frontline in the culture war, where speakers have been subject to protest and boycott because opponents believe their views are akin to hate speech. The line will always be contested, and those pulling out a point of principle often use it to mask a political programme.
Policy Exchange is not the first to attempt to whip up the idea that universities are rotten with reprehensible leftwing, anti-British values, try to indoctrinate students, and pursue a woke agenda. If so, we are doing a spectacularly bad job, given recent election results. In my experience, students typically leave university with their political views unscathed, albeit a little better defended.
Nevertheless, it is in the interests of those in power to send a chill through higher education. Policy Exchange is right that many academics see their role as holding government to account. But we dont discriminate. Whoever is in power gets the same treatment. It is just that we havent had a chance to discomfit a Labour administration for a while.
Some criticisms of universities are well made and too often we enter a defensive mode rather unfitting to institutions of the higher mind. But other attacks have an ulterior purpose: to put universities on notice that they are being watched.
Universities are implicitly warned: stay in your lane, and look both ways before you cross us. Dare academics, and especially their leaders, criticise authoritarian government policy and identify dogma-driven stupidities? Before you open your mouth, keep half an eye on the next funding round, and the law around security of employment.
Darkness has not quite fallen. But ultimately speech and power cannot be detached. Who has the power to speak, who has the power to stop others speaking? And power works in multiple ways. It can be exercised by threat, overt or implicit. But most damaging of all, it can seep inside and make us self-censors. Iron has entered the soul of universities in many other countries. It mustnt happen here.
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