Academic Freedom

The foundational value of higher education

11th August 2022
Jim Butcher

Universities must affirm the importance of free speech if they are to avoid becoming echo chambers, writes Jim Butcher.

Universities should be places where people are free to share and develop their views, including staff and students who dissent from prevailing orthodoxies. This simple principle has long underpinned progressive views of higher education. Yet universities seem to have forgotten its importance.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech ensure that minority, dissenting or heretical views can be heard, argued against, ignored or even satirised. But universities appear increasingly concerned with affirming certain political and philosophical approaches to prominent social issues over the value of academic freedom.

One example of this is Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, which many universities are signed up to. In 2019, Essex University ‘no platformed’ two feminist speakers. Stonewall’s advice led the university to believe it had the legal right to exclude their gender-critical views from campus. After a lengthy legal battle, the University was forced to reverse its decision. It was the invocation of ‘safety’ and ‘offence’ at the centre of campaigners’ case, and the deference to that case by the university, that led to the censorship.

There have been plenty of other cases, involving both staff and students, of unwarranted investigations, harassment and no-platformings as a result of gender critical views being deemed offensive by cliques of campaigners. Stonewall might be at odds with the law and government policy, yet it continues to attract the sponsorship of university employers and to shape institutional policies.

The invocation of ‘offence’ and the protection of ‘vulnerable’ identities from debate, leads inexorably to a censorious culture. For vocal campaigners, opposing views are in and of themselves deemed offensive. For example, transgender activists often argue that any discussion about gender identity is a means of calling into question the right of transgender people to exist.

Alongside this, institutional codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies are often explicit that you can be guilty of causing offence even when it is accepted that no offence was intended. Together, these practices create a clear threat to free speech.

In a series of high-profile cases at universities throughout the UK, gender critical feminists have found themselves investigated, petitioned against, harassed or censured by campaigners on the basis that their views per se. In the case of Kathleen Stock, even her presence on campus was deemed offensive and a danger to the trans community.

The lecturers’ union, UCU – in which I have long been active – has chosen to ratchet up the pressure on gender critical views, and routinely claims that demands for greater freedom of speech are dangerous to minorities. Even widely held, moderately put views – never mind heretical and leftfield ideas from the fringes – are claimed to offend or cause distress and are subsequently censured on that basis. The impulse is to actively problematise speech through policy, rather than to ‘talk back’.

The emphasis on identity groups as vulnerable in the face of others’ views overlooks the great diversity of thought within LGBTQ, BAME, and other communities. In today’s culture wars, people’s views are all too readily ‘read off’ from their colour, sexual preference or gender identity. Viewing people as repositories of privilege or vulnerability based on identity characteristics diminishes the individual.

In reality, all identity groups exhibit viewpoint diversity: some prominent black scholars firmly oppose moves to decolonise the curriculum, and some transgender writers support single sex facilities. Some women insist ‘trans women are women’, and others that, ‘woman equals adult human female’. Some white colleagues read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and are motivated to atone for their ‘privilege’ while some black colleagues dismiss DiAngelo as divisive or just rather silly.

For many, all this is a distraction from getting on with teaching their subject and cultivating everyday solidarities with friends and colleagues. As a colleague put it to me, ‘hung up on micro-aggressions, we’ll miss out on micro-kindnesses’. When one university includes ‘asking people where they are from’ in its list of microaggressions, you can see his point. (I routinely do this with students, without a problem so far, in over 25 years of teaching. It leads to great conversations.)

Viewpoint diversity is the reality – on race, on gender, within and between identity categories – why would we expect anything different? In that context the overarching responsibility of a university is to affirm freedom of speech and academic freedom within the law (and academics should feel free to criticise the law too!). It seems to me that speech should be at least as free in a university as it is outside. That requires less regulation, not more, and a clear affirmation of free speech based on all its positive virtues: openness to ideas, exploration, conviviality and tolerance.

Sociologist Frank Furedi, writing in On Tolerance: a Defence of Moral Independence, makes the point that tolerance is often caricatured as a passive acceptance of speech, including hateful speech. It is not. Rather it involves a moral imperative to judge what is said and to choose how we respond. As Frederick Douglas, one of history’s great advocates for freedom of speech, put it: ‘To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.’

If as a ‘hearer’ we disagree, we can say why. If we are not sure, we can ask for clarification. If we find a view reprehensible we can, if we choose to, say why we think that. Ridicule and walking away are other options, of course. It is presumptuous for campaigners to claim to be acting on behalf of others when they petition against a speaker whose views they find offensive. They are acting against all those who may choose to listen, not just the speaker.

In her book Mere Civility, the philosopher Teresa Bejan defines civility not as etiquette or politeness (although politeness has a lot going for it) but as being prepared to ‘stay in the room’ with people you strongly disagree with. All too often it seems people will invoke a policy or claim offence (often on behalf of others) in order to short circuit any engagement with a difficult or divisive topic. So the room becomes an echo chamber. A shared, knowing-affectation of moral superiority over those people in the out group with ‘problematic’ views is no substitute for a robust, creative public sphere.

Freedom of speech is not without risks. It can lead to offence and upset. But it is also inspiring. It is a value previous generations fought for. Its extension has benefitted the oppressed. Restrictions against a view you may detest can easily lead to restrictions on views that you hold dear. It can lead to great discussions, challenging conversations, refined arguments and changed viewpoints. We owe it to the future of the university, and our students, to affirm the value of academic freedom and free speech as foundational values of higher education.

Jim Butcher is a Reader in the Business School at CCCU and an advisory board member of Academics for Academic Freedom.

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