Universities: Is free speech under threat?This article is rated as fairly difficult to read using the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease scale.
This article should take around 11 minutes 21 seconds to read.
In this article, the BBC asks the question “Is free speech under threat?“, And I hope to add to that discussion with this post.
But first, let’s discuss what exactly is meant by “free speech”. The concept of free speech hasn’t always existed, it came about due to a group of thinkers called the utilitarians who professed that the best way to govern actions was for the maximum “utility” i.e. what was in the best interest of the majority or as the movement’s founder, Jeremy Bentham, is reported to say “the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.” (Theory of Knowlege).
One of the most famous proponents of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill summed the notion of free speech up as :
I choose, by preference the cases which are least favourable to me – In which the argument opposing freedom of opinion, both on truth and that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief of God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality… But I must be permitted to observe that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less if it is put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However, positive anyone’s persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion. – yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal. (“On Liberty” 1859. ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb, UK: Penguin, 1985, pp. 83–84)
It has also been described, more restrictively, as governments not being allowed to forbid people from expressing their ideas, however as JS Mill is closer to the original concept of free speech then I and, his views are more maximalist than restricting the concept to government interference I think it is right to use his notion.
So is free speech under threat in UK Universities?
I will argue that free speech, as described by JS Mill doesn’t exist, either at UK Universities or in the UK in general, and moreover isn’t something that is desirable or even possible, but in the scope that it can be enacted, the limiting of free speech isn’t from the direction the BBC article suggests it is.
In my reading, the key section from the passage above is “It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side.”, I.E. in order to be fair and come to the right decision one must hear both sides of an argument. Is this what we seeing within UK Universities? Are students and staff having their access to “both” sides of a discussion restricted?
Firstly the phrase “contrary side” in JS Mills quote is interesting, It assumes only two sides to an argument. However, as anyone who has ever discussed/argued anything with anyone will know there tends to be more than just to points of view within an argument, to quote ambassador Kosh Naranek “Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”, but let’s assume that JS Mill et al, really mean you need to hear all sides. Is that something that should happen? What would it mean to hear all sides of an argument? Let’s imagine it for a second, let’s pick a self-evident truth, 2+2=4, according to the expanded JS Mill’s statement, we should not accept this until be first hear, not only that 2+2=5, but that they equal six, seven, eight ad infinitum.
Those who argue for a maximalist free speech position have argued that in the marketplace of ideas the notion that 2+2=5 will be shown as false and people will gradually see that 2+2=4. Firstly this assumes a linear progression of ideas, it assumes we never go backwards while personally, I find that notion quite reassuring there is surprisedly little evidence for it. Additionally, and more importantly, it assumes the neutral observer is able to know a priori the correct answer. If we go back to the question of what 2+2 make, if I were to choose to argue the answer as 5, I would say something like “The + sign mean add and add 1 to the numbers either side of it so 2+2 becomes 2 add 2 add 1, which equals 5”, someone else may argue that in fact the + sign means subtract 2 from the number to the left and add it to the number on the right, giving an answer of 2. People may, of course, ask for proof that the + symbol does mean what I say it means and of course I could produce any number of mathematical texts showing that to be the case.
How then is a neutral observer, unaware of the standard meaning of the + sign, to determine who (if anyone) is correct? Clearly, all this is going to do is prevent our understanding, rather than help us move forward. We, therefore, need something between blindly accepting 2+2=4 and the navel-gazing of exploring every possible option, with no means of determining its validity?
Of course, those who argue for free speech aren’t calling for the discussion of every possible option, they want to limit the range of options to a socially acceptable sub-set. The BBC article linked to at the top acknowledges that the NUS has banned six far-right groups from speaking and doesn’t question the legitimacy that, but other incidents, additionally, the Former Met Police Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, says giving extremists “air time… plays to what extremists are looking for” And no one condemns him for limiting Choudary’s freedom of speech.
Where are these boundaries? What is fair to say and what isn’t?
Far from being fixed these boundaries, are of dependent on the audience and to a lesser extent organizers view of what is an acetabular view at that moment in time. It is important to note that these views change over time, even a relatively short space of time, and for those who miss the change in norms the result can leave them falling foul of such changing values. For example, in September 2013 the British politician Ian Davidson suggested that the debate on Scottish independence was continuing only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”, this drew the ire of some in Scotland, but little beyond that, however in June 2016, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered because of her pro-Europe views this lead to a sea change in the way politics was discussed and the appropriateness of inflammatory language such as Ian Davidson’s. To the extent that in 2018 when some Tory backbencher was quoted as saying: “The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.” there was a huge outcry from all political parties. Clearly, there has been a shift in what is acceptable language to use within political debates within the UK.
But this isn’t uniform across a population, different people have different norms they accept. So for example what would be an acceptable language for a far-right meeting would most likely not be acceptable for a far left meeting.
Clearly what is meant by “free speech” is very much down to the audience.
As we’ve seen the idea of a universal maximum “free speech” is not something we have, not something we’re ever likely to get and not even something we should desire. Instead the concept of “free speech” appears to be nothing more than the ability to say things your audience doesn’t find abhorrent.
Even so the idea that we should allow a wide range of views is an important one. With just a narrow range of views being heard it become difficult, if not imposable to move our understanding and society forward.
The what are we to make of the student protests against a number of recent speakers at UK University?
To understand the effect of these student protests it is worth understanding what the protests were protesting against.
To quote from the article
Feminist writer Germaine Greer and LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell both delivered talks despite complaints at their presence.
There have been cases – like that of YouTuber Sargon of Akkad, whose talk at King’s College London was interrupted by protesters, or ex-Muslim feminist campaigner Maryam Namazie, who was heckled by some students at Goldsmiths – where speaking events have been disrupted by a small number of vocal students. These were not institutional bans.
Warwick students’ union did try to block Ms Namazie from speaking, a decision which was reversed after public pressure.
In all these cases the protests where against talks delivered by individuals. There may be some who misunderstand what a talk (or lecture) is. Normally the invited speaker stands an talks to a self-selected audience of students, faculty members and sometimes members of the wider community who are interested in what the speaker has to say. At the end of the 45 minutes to an hour talk, there is sometimes (but not always) time for questions, there are often more questions then the speaker has time to answer and most speakers are able to string out questions if they haven’t planted them with students who look favourably upon the speakers point of view.
The whole set-up doesn’t encourage debate and the consumption of multiple views instead it only provides a single view, there is, however, a counter view in the scenarios listed above, the student protestors themselves.
It can be argued that far from limiting free speech the by protesting they are in fact providing the counter position that is missing from the talk, and so, therefore, the “proponents” of free speech who are critical of the are limiting the discourse in that instance, they of course arn’t in the instance of the meta discussion, as their view is as unabhorrent as mine.