Long read: free speech needs no state-ordained champion

Daniel Esson 3 March 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Brian Turner on Flickr

Debates regarding free speech and what is and isn’t acceptable to say in public have been around for centuries, but in the past few years, they have moved back into the socio-cultural spotlight, most recently re-ignited by the Conservative governments’ choice to create a post of ‘free speech champion’ to monitor the situation on English university campuses. The opposing wings of culture warriors in the commentariat have been arguing that this move is either a wise choice to protect freedom of expression in a climate increasingly hostile to it, or a cynical political ploy to distract from bigger problems. Unsurprisingly, there’s an element of truth to both of these positions.

University campuses are hardly the Orwellian, individuality-crushing hellscapes that the cultural combatants of the right make them out to be. There are no thought police kicking in accommodation doors to check you have the right opinion on the hot topic of the day. However, to pretend that free speech doesn’t come under threat from small but vocal groups on British university campuses is also absurd. It’s not only the state which can bestow the right of free speech and strip it away through censorship, the fear of being ostracised by colleagues or marked out as a possessor of unfashionable opinions can equally serve as an indirect form of censorship.

Our own university was unwittingly entered into the free speech debate last academic year, because of a talk on class and feminism. A self-proclaimed “gender critical feminist”, Selina Todd, was invited by the School of English to give the talk, only for an open letter to be written arguing that she shouldn’t be allowed to give it as her views on gender “putting trans and nonbinary members of our community in the position of having to defend their right to exist”. I feel the need to state that I have no sympathy for Todd’s opinions on the specifics of gender identity. Whatever one may think about her views on gender identity, arguing that she should have been stopped from giving the talk (which wasn’t even directly about gender identity) is a free speech issue.

However distasteful somebody’s opinion, however prejudiced or exclusionary one may consider a viewpoint, real freedom of speech means that people have a right to speak their mind even if the views they express are deeply hurtful. Nobody should be compelled to hear something that offends them, but that doesn't mean people should actively attempt to stop it from being said. Free speech must mean freedom to express opinions that others find offensive, or it doesn’t mean much at all. From this, it seems to follow that any reasonable definition of free speech should essentially allow any views to be spoken, no matter how offensive they may be, with the obvious exception of speech which clearly and directly incites violence against specific targets.

In the policy paper setting out the governments’ plan and position on the topic, our embarrassment of an Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, makes some surprisingly good points. He defends the British governments’ decision to protect Salman Rushdie from the death sentence passed upon him by Ayatollah Khomeini for writing The Satanic Verses, and mocks those who attempted to ban Life of Brian and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, correctly lauding the choice not to ban them as examples of how free and tolerant a society Britain is. The saliency of these points is uncharacteristic and taken at face value it would seem that the Conservatives have noble intentions with their new free speech drive. However, taking the words of any political entity at face value isn’t advisable.

Many who laud the governments’ decision to appoint this ‘free speech champion’ have opted to forget that only a few months ago the same government arguably made an attack on academic freedom themselves. The Department for Education announced guidance which stated that the use of materials by anti-capitalist groups for educational purposes is wrong, and could be considered tantamount to an endorsement of illegal activity. They also avoided being specific with what this meant. Depending on the interpretation of the guidance, one could argue that the use of most Labour Party manifestos prior to the 1980s for educational purposes could violate this, as they uniformly called for the end of capitalism. This goes to demonstrate that whoever is put in the position of determining what is and isn’t acceptable to say as a matter of free speech will almost universally inflict their own biases onto that determination.

The exact responsibilities and powers of the newly created post of Free Speech Champion are discussed in the aforementioned policy paper, but not in detail sufficient enough to give much concrete detail to the role. The paper explains that the government will legislate to confer more duties unto Student Unions to protect and actively promote freedom of speech on campuses. All well and good, but how this looks in practice remains murky. Would this Free Speech Champion have the power to compel Student Unions to invite previously disinvited speakers to give talks? Would student societies who intend to host a controversial speaker and then renege their invitation (due to external pressure or otherwise) be compelled by this Champion to re-invite said speaker? Would the presence of every speaker with radical opinions be mandatorily counterbalanced by inviting a rival speaker to argue against them? The National Union of Students has responded by arguing that they do not believe there is an extensive problem with freedom of speech on campuses and that they look forward to working with the newly appointed Champion in spite of this.

The Conservatives have managed to achieve exactly what they wanted thus far with the creation of this Free Speech Champion. They’ve successfully managed to throw a bone to sections of the press which thrive on reporting stories related to the culture wars and have managed to make otherwise sensible people take leave of their senses and laud the Tories as the real party of free speech. While the words of the report and alleged intentions appear noble, for those of us who are instinctively averse to censorship at least, until concrete action is taken, it’s hard to see this as much more than a bout of low-key, small arms fire in the culture war in which both the “woke” and the “unwoke” relish in combat.

Overall, this new “Free Speech Champion” is a vacuous and poorly defined role, devised as a cynical act of political manoeuvring. As university students, our actions and words take on special social significance and are occasionally watched with interest by the wider society. Some of us likely sought to conscientiously object from participation in the culture war, but with it advancing ever further into the mainstream the combatants of either side seem determined to make armed and uniformed conscripts of us all.

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