In The Big Debate this week, two writers debate whether a ‘free speech champion’ should be appointed by the government, or if it might cause more harm than good.
“Where government fears freedom of expression they often try to shut down media and civil society, or clip their wings” orated then-home secretary Boris Johnson in 2017 as he announced £1m funding for global press freedom projects.
Fast-forward to February 2020, journalists from outlets including The Guardian, the Daily Mail and the BBC boycotted a Brexit briefing after his government conducted a ‘sinister and sad’ selective ban on other media outlets not limited to the Huffington Post and the Independent.
Three months later, a number of organisations for press freedom condemned Downing Street over its ‘banning’ of OpenDemocracy from its press conferences. Fast-forward again to 2021, journalist Andy Aitchison used the word ‘censorship’ to describe his arrest outside of a military base housing asylum seekers in Kent. No wonder the UK’s freedom of expression rating on a ranking by a human rights charity fell by 11 points in October, placing it behind all but one G7 countries.
Ergo, there may be a hint of irony in Johnson’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announcing a ‘Free Speech Champion’ as part of a wider policy purportedly aimed at strengthening free speech at universities. Digressing, I would like to answer if we, as students, are being deprived of a free speech champion and if the underpinning reasoning adds up.
In 2015, our students’ union made it into The Guardian after it ‘censored’ an article from The Badger Newspaper be- cause ‘union officials were upset by an article about a student who [was] re- ported to be taking legal action against the university.’
Whilst the SU cited legislation and litigation avoidance, the editorial team proclaimed that independent legal ad- vice confirmed their content was ‘legally sound.’
The team at the time insisted their editorial independence had been com- promised. From that year to 2018, the USSU consistently earned a ‘red’ rating in a Free Speech University Ranking due to its ‘bann[ing] and actively censor[ing] ideas on campus.’
Looking at academic freedom more specifically, last year a study in the UK found that 50% of conservative academics said they self-censor and face a hostile environment for their beliefs. It found that the Left does not discriminate more than the Right, however, as universities tend to be overwhelmingly left leaning, discrimination against conservative ideas happens at a much higher rate.
Hence we need to be cognizant of our own biases to ensure that the expression of beliefs are free from unjust consequences such as firing, cancel campaigns, and job discrimination.
Quillette discussed the report, arguing: ‘Universities are not in a position to solve the problem on their own. Whereas threats to liberalism typically emerge from the state, there are different scenarios in which the state needs to step in to protect individual liberty—from mobs, illiberal pressure groups, or corrupt institutions.’
It doesn’t matter whether an act of stifling or compelling language seemingly benefits you, free speech is a parcel of which we cannot pick and choose the contents, unless very selectively. Some, interestingly, even argue for the abolishment of Hate Speech Laws, citing the net utility of being able to pin down truly harmful ideas and weed them out at the root.
Moralistic calls for censorship used to come predominantly from the Right; strangely, it is the Left who has taken on this batton. We shouldn’t get complacent lest it come back to bite us in the future.
We must defend the right to exchange ideas without harassment, bullying or threat of job loss – it’s not enough to be passive. We live in a freer society, but there are plenty demonstrating their contempt for this, whether that’s the government banning journalists, an SU stopping its own newspaper, the conflation of hated speech with hate speech, or language with violence. We should not assume that a burgeoning set of attitudes towards free speech will never prevail.
It is clear that we – students and society – need a free speech champion and then some. However, I’ve already given the answer as to who that champion should be – from the journalist standing up for a counterpart of a non-politically aligned publication, to those defending viewpoint diversity regardless of which views they find palatable.
A government tsar is not it. That a government official from an administration with poor track records when it comes to journalistic expression will have the best interests of free speech at its heart should be met with deep cynicism. The purported reasoning behind it, however, still stands. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Click here to read the ‘yes’ argument.