If there is a principle guaranteed to promote the sacrifice of sense to exaggeration it must surely be the principle that free speech is sacrosanct. Take Richard Branson’s recent justification for continuing to stock the Daily Mail on the trains run by his company, Virgin Trains. Branson tweeted, “Freedom of speech, freedom of choice and tolerance for differing views are the core principles of any free and open society”. This strikes me as a little over the top, considering that anyone can easily buy a copy of the Mail before boarding a train. I have tended to assume, though, that a passenger train is essentially machine for moving people from A to B, and not a travelling arena within which – to borrow a phrase from government minister Jo Johnson – “ideas can be freely challenged and prejudices exposed”.
A similarly casual elision of distinct ideas informs the argument of the speech from which I’ve just quoted. Johnson gave it last October, when he was Minister for Universities. One reason for paying attention to its argument is that, with the speech, Johnson heralded the introduction of a new government department, the Office for Students (or OfS), so we may get some idea of the thinking which led up to it. Another is that it exemplifies a melange of rather familiar non sequiturs and rhetorical ploys. We may therefore treat it as a case study.
As a start, take the elision itself, and Johnson’s statement that, “Our universities …. should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged and prejudices exposed”. It would be hard to disagree, if Johnson means that universities have duty to foster the free exchange of ideas and opinions in pursuit of knowledge and understanding. That is, if you like, the point of universities – just as it is the point of trains to move people and goods from one place to another. However, Johnson’s speech makes it clear that he is not especially concerned with that, but with the freedom of invited speakers to express ideas and attitudes which members of their potential audience may dislike. His target is, as he puts it, the “forces of censorship, where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them in every way under the banner of ‘safe spaces’ or ‘no-platforming’”. You could call the exercise of either freedom an exercise of “free speech”, but it’s important to recognise that they are, in fact, different. To mark the distinction – and for want of better labels – let me call the former, “academic freedom”, and the latter “freedom of public speech”. My point is that, with his argument, Johnson moves from the undoubtedly true claim that universities have a duty to protect the former, to the contentious claim that they have a duty to protect the latter.
Now, consider some of the differences between these freedoms. One is that, contrary to Johnson’s assertions, the exercise of academic freedom does require the recognition of constraints upon what can be reasonably discussed. Those constraints are imposed by standards of evidence and reason. Johnson writes approvingly of “Galileo’s heretical rejection of geocentrism” and “Darwin’s godless theory of creation”, but overlooks the fact that Galileo and Darwin had substantial evidence with which to back their theories. They did not rely upon gut feeling or Damascene revelation. Johnson also thinks that students should be confronted with views “that challenge their most profoundly held beliefs or simply make them uncomfortable”. Against this, I must say that, if I were a student of, say, physics, life sciences or history I would feel pretty uncomfortable if my tutors were to maintain that phlogiston theory, creationism, or Holocaust denial were supported by the latest research. Of course, no such restrictions apply in the case of freedom of public speech. Invited speakers from outside the university may have all sorts of axes to grind. Frequently, they will have political motives of one kind or another. Within the adversarial context of a liberal and democratic culture it is, moreover, essential that people should be in a position to exercise that freedom, but the question is whether universities in particular have a duty to protect it, thanks to their role. (Doesn’t that duty fall more directly upon the shoulders of the press, for example, or the broadcasting media?)
One reason for suggesting that they might not have such a duty is that the responsibility to protect academic freedom brings with it the responsibility to maintain an environment within which that freedom can be exercised by all. In other words, the protection of the one freedom can require the restriction of another. It’s a consideration which might reasonably be used to support policies of no-platforming, and it is also a point with which Johnson himself agrees. He states that, “a racist and anti-Semitic environment … is totally antithetical to the idea of a university in a free society”, and that, “the existence of procedures to deal with hate crime is an integral part of ensuring that [universities] provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students”. This is absolutely right, but why single out anti-Semitism for special attention? There are, no doubt, many factors which can lead to students feeling marginalised or undervalued, and thereby failing to benefit from the system as much as they could. Why not recognise, also, that the introduction of certain visiting speakers into the university can itself be one of those factors?
This is not to deny that the reasons given by students for no platforming can sometimes be quite feeble and overly politically correct. However, it’s important to distinguish between principle and practice here, and the salient question is whether the civil servants at the OfS are likely to do any better. Doesn’t Johnson’s speech itself exemplify political correctness gone pompous? It’s hard to avoid the impression that he is less interested in free speech per se than in making sure that, whoever calls the shots, it won’t be politically active students.
On this point, Johnson’s strategy is aided by a familiar rhetorical ploy, the invocation of a “snowflake” generation, needing to be “shielded” from “views that challenge their most profoundly held beliefs or simply make them feel uncomfortable”. Against this it seems to me that “snowflakes” only exist in the imaginations of journalists. Can there really be students who don’t even encounter “challenging” views when watching the TV news, or arguing with each other in the bar? He also relies upon a familiar misconception, namely that “hate speech” is easy to identify. It isn’t – not always. To take Johnson’s own example, anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers are unlikely to address meetings by shouting, “Down With Jews!” It’s more subtle than that. Holocaust deniers come armed with a bogus historical theory, claiming that the figure of six million murdered is a gross exaggeration, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, and so on. In short, racism can come in disguise, claiming to be, “just another point of view”. That’s why it can be hard to recognise, and equally hard to know how to fight it.