Should the Government Legislate for Free Speech in British Universities?
At the recent state opening of Parliament, the UK Government proposed legislation to protect free speech at UK universities. This has come in response to a number of well publicised incidents where speakers holding controversial views were “deplatformed” or where meetings were threatened with disruption or violence by students or faculty who found the views of the speaker offensive.
While no one should object to any institution that genuinely seeks to defend free speech and open, rational debate of competing ideas, governments and politicians might not be the ideal defenders of such values within universities. Certainly in America, state legislatures and boards of regents have often used regulatory powers and control over university finances to influence curriculum, faculty appointments, tenure, and other matters of policy to promote an agenda that could constrain free speech and the openness of public universities to a diversity range of opinion. At a more extreme level, Viktor Orban’s recent attempt to gain control of Hungary’s universities including forcing George Soros to relocate his Central European University to Vienna is only the latest in a long history of governments forcing universities to promote particular political and religious views while banning the discussion of competing ideas.
While governments run by politicians are not necessarily the ideal defenders of free speech and the open competition of ideas within universities, British universities might also consider whether the proposals in the Queen’s Speech constitute an indictment of their own failure to promote these values. Do they have a genuinely diverse faculty, do they really encourage a wide range of views on major issues, and do they see as the most basic element of a university education, the ability to examine rationally a variety of opinions in the light of reliable evidence?
Critics have good reason to challenge some of the policies of the state of Israel, but Jewish student organisations have an equal right to invite spokespersons from the Israeli government to university campuses to present their point of view. Events in the Middle East have a major impact well beyond the region, and it is vital students have a good understanding of the complexities facing the major players in seeking solutions.
To deny a platform to any group because it may offend or provoke violence and disruption from others represents a serious threat to free speech. To suggest that a student organisation should fund security as a condition of permitting a meeting as apparently happened recently with the Bristol University Student Union, invites mobs to deny the free expression of ideas. In the interests of free speech, universities have an obligation to their students and to the broader community to use the law or their own administrative powers to discipline employees or students who seek to disrupt such meetings. At the same time, universities should insist that controversial speakers be open to questioning from those who disagree as well as providing a right of reply for groups holding other views.
It should hardly be surprising that in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, six months after the presidential election the majority of Americans who voted for Donald Trump still believe that the election was stolen. Forty years ago, Americans received most of their news through the public airways where the Federal Communications Commission, under the fairness doctrine, required media companies to insure balance in covering politics and to accept procedures for rights of reply as a condition of holding a broadcast license. This provision was abolished in 1987 and the growth of cable news and the internet means that those holding even the most extreme and irrational views can completely avoid any sources that might challenge their preconceived notions whether it be on the integrity of elections, the backgrounds and beliefs of political opponents, or the reliability of health information.
While those in elite universities never fail to condemn the unwillingness of their political opponents to reconsider their unsubstantiated prejudices, higher education might wish to consider if it is sometimes guilty of the same thing in determining what points of view are acceptable in the classroom or from speakers invited to the campus. Universities often suppress unpopular ideas by suggesting that certain groups within the community may find these views highly offensive or threatening. In the content of the curriculum, in class discussions, and in the assignment of texts, universities have increasingly tried to provide “safe spaces” and to provide “trigger warnings” to those who might find certain content stressful or upsetting.
The eminent Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would have had little sympathy with this approach. In a famous dissenting opinion in 1929, he argued for a broad interpretation of the First Amendment by writing "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate”. By allowing students to shield from unpopular, offensive, or threatening views, universities are abandoning one of their most important functions.
Universities should be responsible for exposing their students to a wide range of opinions and for providing them with the skills to evaluate critically competing beliefs and to construct logical arguments in support of positions that, upon serious examination, they find convincing. One should also remember that many ideas we readily accept today such as the evil of slavery, the injustice of gender or racial inequality, or the view that the world was not created in the year 4004 BC, were once considered so offensive or preposterous that educated persons often refused to discuss them.
Admittedly one should rightly fear the views of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, or anti vax campaigners winning widespread public acceptance. However in the age of the internet and cable news, trying to suppress or criminalize these ideas will not prevent their circulation and would only feed in these groups a sense of victimhood and a desire to present themselves as martyrs to the actions of the deep state. It would be far better to look for methods whereby reliable facts and diverse political views could more effectively be brought to the attention of the general public. In the present climate, this may prove to be a considerable task, but one worthy of the efforts of leading universities and a valuable investment of some of their often considerable endowments.
There is nothing all that unique about the disturbing events in American politics over the past five years. Political conflict over the role of the judiciary, the proper powers of the central government, and especially the provisions of the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in reaction to the perceived threat of the French Revolution during the administration of John Adams was equally contentious. The election of 1800 was probably every bit as bitter as the election of 2020. Yet Jefferson, in his first inaugural address makes an observation still worth remembering when he said “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Admittedly Jefferson remained a slaveholder for the rest of his life. Hopefully in spite of this, universities will still encourage their students to consider that what he had to say about democracy, about the essential role of education in creating a responsible citizenry, and about the vital importance of free speech and a free press in creating effective government as relevant today.
Jefferson and Adams both died the same day on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence they helped to write. In spite of their differences, in their later years, they carried out a lively correspondence on public policy. Perhaps universities could inspire the broader public to profit by their example.