Free speech: whose problem is it really?

At a time when the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, is renewing his free speech crusade – popping up at The EconomistOpen Future Festival’ last weekend – there are indeed some glaring examples of problems. No-platforming, closing down of informed debate: it’s all there, just – well – not on university campuses in the United Kingdom.

Take, for example, the treatment of the ‘Best for Britain’ campaign by the Conservative Party. Best for Britain is a peaceful and law-abiding group gaining widespread support in its campaign for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal, and had been planning to hold fringe events at the Conservative conference in Birmingham later this month. But applications by three group members for passes allowing them to enter the conference venue were last week refused. They were no-platformed.

Or take a report of the response at the highest levels to one of the most careful academic studies so far on the question of the likely effect of Brexit on national food supplies. According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, his research group’s report did indeed attract the attention of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as one might well expect. But their meeting did not go well: “I told [Michael Gove] he was driving the country into a food security crisis. He looked incredulous.” And so, at a time when Professor Lang’s expertise is more valuable than at any other point in decades, I’m not getting the impression that he is being invited to present his analysis to other members of the government.

And then there’s the case of Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary. He’s no proponent of free speech; indeed he has restricted the media and judiciary, and manipulated the democratic system to the advantage of his party. His repression has also been felt within universities: for instance, his government is proposing to ban gender studies courses, while the Central European University has declared it may have to leave the country entirely because Orban is refusing to legalise its status. Last week two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament supported a motion to censure Orban’s government. But where did Gyimah’s party – those proud defenders of free speech – stand on this matter? That’s right, they whipped their MEPs to vote against the motion.

Maybe one could argue that there is not much wrong with any of this. The Tories surely have the right to decide who they want to hear at a conference, just as a government minister must by necessity sift competing voices on any issue. And maybe, after all, 95 per cent of the nation’s economists really are wrong, and their rational rebuttals of Patrick Minford and the Economists for Free Trade may justly be set aside. Maybe. Or maybe the ‘robust debate of contentious issues – to reach the truth’, something Gyimah sees as ‘core to university life’, is somewhat absent at present from political circles.

And maybe one could also argue – perhaps with rather more cause – that student unions have the right to decide how debates will be staged on their premises. For the evidence that critics raise on this issue tends to reduce to a handful of well-publicized cases, usually centred on students’ unions rather than universities, that regardless collapse under any degree of scrutiny. Arguably, then, much of the fabricated outrage over alleged censorship on campus boils down to resentment that someone or other was not invited to speak somewhere or other. Surely students should not be left to make these decisions themselves, especially when the Conservative Party is evidently so much more reliable in its ethical judgements.

A generous reading of Gyimah’s attack is that it’s merely a diversionary tactic. It doesn’t pay for Conservative universities ministers to look as though they are too close to universities, so it’s helpful in political terms to pick a fight or two. And a cultural matter like free speech plays well with the rightish edges of the party while making little practical difference to the way in which universities operate. It’s worth noting, in his defence, that Gyimah has not – yet – hit the revenues of universities; indeed on research spending there is a positive story to tell, while his recent endorsement of universities’ core mission was widely welcomed.

But I’m no longer prepared to take that generous reading. I’m sick of the slipshod approach to evidence in these attacks on universities, and I’m tired of being told that students and academics have insufficient respect for divergent viewpoints – that we’re not much fussed with the truth. How about, just for once, setting aside the easy, damaging rhetoric and looking at the hard, complicated facts of speech on campus? In other words, how about setting an example of intellectual honesty for other members of this historically slippery, self-absorbed government?

Moreover, whatever their motivations, Gyimah’s largely unfounded attacks on universities are working to deflect attention from far more serious problems at the heart of his own government. He is at present complicit in a project to close down debate and suppress uncomfortable evidence, and the nation stands to suffer as a result. He would therefore do well to direct his gaze to his own workplace, and turn his supposed passion for reason and transparency upon the debased way in which Brexit is being discussed. Universities are not the problem here.

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