The Universities Minister Invented a 'Free Speech Problem' at UK Unis – Here's Why

There is a threat to freedom of speech on campus – but it's not coming from the student left Sam Gyimah is so keen to criticise.
01 November 2018, 11:46am
free speech protester
A Count Dankula supporter protests in support of free speech in London. Photo: Alex Cavendish / Alamy Live News

Back in May, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah proposed a "free speech pledge", to ensure that campuses are spaces where "open debate" is able to take place. "A society in which people feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling," Gyimah has stated.

This is just one of Gyimah's many recent interventions to help combat the supposed erosion of free speech on campus. He's also worried about the proliferation of "safe space culture", reporting that at one institution he "turned up to speak" and they "read the safe space policy" and "it took 20 minutes". Except that, well, Gyimah has never said what institution this was at, and it almost certainly never took place. Eight universities that Gyimah visited on a tour before his remarks said that he couldn't have been referring to them.

Another claim Gyimah made – about a professor being reported for hate speech after teaching a history class on the Cold War, in which he took the side of the British – also turned out to have been completely made-up. King's College London said there was "absolutely no evidence of any complaint or allegation of hate speech" made against any lecturers.

Last week, a BBC report confirmed what anyone who has been around a university campus in any serious way over the last few years already knows, namely: that left-wing student activists simply do not constitute a meaningful threat to freedom of speech.

From responses to freedom of information requests given by 120 UK universities (out of 136 universities in the UK), the report found that, since 2010, there had been just seven student complaints about course content being somehow inoffensive or inappropriate, only six occasions on which universities had cancelled talks by guest speakers after student complains, and a gigantic zero instances in which books had been removed or banned from university libraries.

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Yes, left-wing students and academics have attempted to re-shape the content of courses – this is just what efforts to "de-colonise the curriculum" amount to. Yes, left-wing students have attempted to prevent figures like Germaine Greer and Sargon of Akkad from speaking on campus. Yes, left-wing academics have issued public complaints about the direction of colleagues' research.

Right-wingers might not like any of this, but all of it seems entirely in keeping with norms of free speech. De-colonising the curriculum might see some white male authors dropped from, say, English Literature or Philosophy courses – but this is precisely in the name of inclusivity, to ensure that writers, and students, from all backgrounds have a voice.

"No-platforming" might initially sound like a threat to freedom of speech, but the right to free speech does not entail the right to say whatever you want, wherever you want to say it. Recent "victims" of no-platforming almost always have other, vastly more prominent platforms from which to speak from.

Likewise, the right to free speech does not entail the right to say whatever you want without being called up on it. If right-wingers feel like campus culture is having a "chilling" effect on their views, this can only be because it is trying to subject them to critical scrutiny. If the right are worried about this, it hardly seems dignified to go crying to Mummy Government. If they want to keep on holding their views, they ought to get better arguments for them instead. Facts don't care about your feelings, snowflake – even if you're a Nazi.

But that's not to say that free speech on campus isn't under threat. In fact, there is a very serious threat to freedom of speech on campus: it's just that it isn't coming from the student left. In fact, it is coming from right-wing culture warriors and politicians like Sam Gyimah.

On the one hand, when they're not whining about bigots being barred from campuses, ministers have been busily overseeing things like the "Prevent" programme, which – under the auspices of "anti-radicalisation" – has had the effect of limiting the freedoms of (predominantly) Muslim students.

On the other, the current right-wing obsession with "free speech on campus" can itself be understood as an attack on freedom of speech. Often, right-wingers respond to left-wing objections to their views by invoking the image of the "marketplace of ideas" – something supposed to call to mind an ideal forum in which all views can be debated, freely and equally, on their own merits, regardless of how "offensive" or "unfashionable" they are.

This "marketplace" imagery strikes many people as facile – but actually I think it's incredibly appropriate. What else does the "free market" do, in practice, but reinforce the interests and preferences of people who are already rich and powerful, threatening anyone who does not conform to its demands with exclusion and thus destitution? The market isn't a sphere of human freedom – it's a disciplinary mechanism.

Free speech controversies have already seen students like Cambridge activist Lola Olufemi targeted in the press. Meanwhile, the libertarian website Sp!ked's "free speech rankings" serve to disincentivise universities from no-platforming even the stupidest, worst and most offensive speakers. Even norms of "civility" work a bit like this – respond angrily to a speaker whose racist, anti-immigrant views directly threaten a group you yourself are a part of, and the partisans of free speech will look down their nose at your claims like they're the adviser at the JobCentre and you've just handed them a tatty, badly-formatted CV.

There has never been the faintest whiff of a suggestion Gyimah might have to resign over any of his, ahem, controversial claims about free speech on campus. On one level, this reflects the new political reality we live in: government ministers just make up whatever they want – who cares? But it may be that spreading this nonsense is effectively what Gyimah is in his job to do .

After all, last year the government announced plans to fine, suspend or deregister universities if they do not meet a statutory duty to uphold free speech. We can imagine a perfect Tory end-game here, where anyone who questions right-wing talking points immediately has their funding cut off.

Enforcing a "marketplace of ideas" is just another way our universities – already effectively turned into businesses by the imposition of tuition fees – are being subjected to the discipline of the free market. But that can’t happen if the threat to free speech doesn’t exist, hence Gyimah and his ilk needing to invent one.