In recent years, headlines have been dominated by an apparent crisis of free speech. In 2015, the Huffington Post dubbed Germaine Greer “dangerous” in response to the efforts of Cardiff students to bar her from speaking on campus. Greer had recently made headlines for degrading comments targeting transgender women, stating that post-operative transgender women, “can’t be women.” In response, Cardiff students banded together to deny her a platform, stating that, “universities should prioritise the voices of the most vulnerable on their campuses.”
Similar such incidents were compounded by the study early this year which claimed 94% of UK universities censored free speech on campus. The study, orchestrated by Spiked, employed a simplistic traffic-light system to assess each university’s free speech policy, seemingly borrowed from primary schools across the country. The University of Edinburgh earned Spiked’s censure over their Trans Equality Policy, which asked students to, “Think of the person as being the gender that they want you to think of them as. Use the name and pronoun that the person asks you to,” and earned a red rating for its trouble.
Seemingly galvanised, the Minister of State for Universities, Jo Johnson, last month criticised British campuses for shirking their “legal duty” to protect freedom of speech and forbade further gatekeeping on the basis of “beliefs or views, policy or objective.” Johnson publicly stated that growing concerns over free speech would be a matter for interest for the upcoming Higher Education and Research Bill. Johnson also stated that universities were required to have a “code of practice regarding free speech.” On that subject, Amnesty International has this to say: “You might not expect us to say this, but in certain circumstances free speech and freedom of expression can be restricted. Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement.”
Regulating speech, then, is not a new phenomenon. The Civil Rights Movement organisation defines hate speech as “verbal abuse, written speeches, harassment or gestures,” the intention being to “harass and distress the intended target.” There are remarkable similarities shared with the University of Glasgow’s definition of bullying, as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.” Similarly, harassment “has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”
Conventional ideas of free speech stir hazy recollections of revolution in progress: bold lettered placards and banners in black and white newsprint. The 60s swarmed with student protest: they rallied for civil rights, against the state and segregation. Free speech sought freedom in return. So, when did freedom of speech start meaning something different?
Young people have become increasingly vocal, rising to combat a diverse range of issues, from rape culture to racism, yet a growing trend sees these protests pigeonholed as both suppressive and suppressed.
In 2004, self-proclaimed feminist Julie Bindel took to the Guardian to decry recent advances in freedom of speech. Bindel flexed her personal freedom to publicly denounce the “surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts” of women who had undergone gender reassignment surgery. In the same breath, Bindel empathised with the “self-hating, suicidal women who had experienced horrific homophobia.” Perhaps Bindel is unaware that 48% of the transgender community attempt suicide by the age of 26, but by 2016 she remained unmoved, describing herself as “disturbed” by the efforts of social workers to support transgender children. Over the past ten years, studies have reiterated that “social isolation is one of the strongest and most reliable predictors of suicidal ideation, attempts, and lethal suicidal behavior across the lifespan”, and no connection between LGBT identities and mental illness has been identified beyond the “bullying, marginalisation and stigmatisation” of LGBT people.
What it comes down to then is a question of social responsibility. It would be absurd to suggest that Julie Bindel is solely to blame for the persecution of transgender women, but she plays a role in its perpetuation. Likewise, the thought of Germaine Greer as “dangerous” may seem laughable, but she uses her platform to make the world a more dangerous, less hospitable place. This same cycle plays out every day, cultivating a society that doesn’t belong to everyone.
So what would Johnson’s bill hope to achieve? To protect the vulnerable, or embolden the hateful? The modern day bigot masquerades as an underdog; it snaps and snarls, then snivels when it’s put outside. But bigots have never been the underdog, and this couldn’t be more evident than in the entertainment of this debate. Ultimately, this issue isn’t centred on one person’s right to speak, but another person’s right to exist.