Is it possible that government attempts to regulate free speech on campuses could be worse than the apparent ‘cancel culture’ they decry?
Last month, the UK government embarked on their latest crusade as the white knights of academic freedom. To address what is being described as a “crisis of free speech” on university campuses, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced he will be appointing a “Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion” to the Office for Students. The champion will be tasked with ensuring universities follow government regulations on free speech and will have the power to fine the non-compliant. This is in addition to extending the duties of protecting free speech directly to student unions, and allowing individuals to seek compensation in court if a university fails to uphold their right to free speech. Bold moves in support of academic freedom from a department who, less than six months ago, were pushing for a ban on anti-capitalist reading materials in English schools.
While these new regulations are only applicable south of the border, they bring a longstanding debate over university free speech back to the surface, with implications for institutions across the UK. For more than a decade, the media has been reporting apparent infringements on free speech on campuses, safe spaces gone wild and the apparently overwhelming spectre of “cancel culture”. These range from academics having their talks pulled, such as the recent postponement of University of California professor Gregory Clark’s For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls seminar here at Glasgow last month, to books being removed from libraries, and students coming forward with claims that they fear revealing their views on issues such as Brexit due to the hostile response. In the government proposal, Williamson himself decried “the rise of intolerance and cancel culture” within the university system. So academic freedom is being brought to its knees by “woke” students and politically correct university staff? In the immortal words of Public Enemy, don’t believe the hype.
While cases like Gregory Clark’s have managed to make their way into national newspapers, they hardly reflect a widespread crisis. A 2018 parliamentary report from the Joint Committee of Human Rights stated it “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested,” which points to the cancelling of speakers by universities being linked to occasional individual cases rather than a coherent attack on free speech. Focussing on the Clark incident, his seminar was postponed rather than cancelled to allow the talk to be accommodated within a workshop with opportunity for more debate. I’d say allowing his academic (and I use that term loosely) theory that IQ is linked to genetics and, in turn, socio-economic outcomes – essentially eugenics light – to be debated at a later date is a very balanced response. Rather than stifle free speech, this decision allows a response to views which, in the words of the 110 academics who signed a letter denouncing Clark, “have been overwhelmingly discredited by reputable and rigorous research.” In my view, the university should have been able to refuse the lecture on the grounds of it being so heavily discredited with little grounding. Surely universities should be promoting rigorous research and the use of credible sources?
This hasn’t stopped the rallying calls of his supporters citing a threat to academic freedom. In their eyes Clark is another victim of “cancel culture” and censorship from universities which are trying to block students from hearing alternative points of view – which is why I was surprised to find his books still fully accessible at the library. Either the University really dropped the ball keeping his views from being accessed by students or, in a wild twist, it could be possible he wasn’t being censored at all.
If the University of Glasgow was subject to the Department for Education’s policy, they could have been liable to pay damages in court for a failure to uphold freedom of speech or face other disciplinary action. That is a lot of protection being given to shakey academic work that seems to do nothing but shield it from criticism and, ultimately, debate. If something as simple as postponing a talk can be grounds for accusations of censorship, it raises questions over how the government could apply these new rules.
Could a government who demanded the removal of materials from schools based on their anti-capitalist views really be trusted to enforce these rules universally? I wouldn’t hold my breath. Demanding the removal of one side of the argument while promoting the inclusion of the other demonstrates a clear agenda. The balanced upholding of the rules by a “Free Speech Champion” who owes their job to that same government seems unlikely. Really what the champions of university free speech want is a place to air their views free from criticism. They have yet to grasp that sometimes criticism loses you your platform, that’s just consequence culture not “cancel culture,” and it’s a vital part of free speech.