Imagined Repression, the Phantom Threats to Free Speech

The stranglehold of Brexitland’s new right is tightening. As we explored the other day the establishment media is fighting back against independent autonomous incursions and to enforce the new regime’s priorities. Now the war takes on two new fronts. Simon Heffer explains in the Telegraph that something called a ‘heritage summit’ will be “British culture’s last stand against woke zealotry” – explaining that among the 25 heritage bodies whose leaders will meet Oliver Dowden, “too many are possessed by a Left-wing spirit that the public reviles”.

It’s Political Correctness Gone Mad!

The “war on woke” or the “culture wars” are the latest attempt to maintain order, to quash those posing questions to the powerful and the latest iteration of a battle that is about both gender and generation, race and sexuality.

So far so Tory.

We can expect tired and traditional heritage bodies trying desperately to reflect contemporary liberal sensibilities to be chastised into a reactionary framework under the paranoid state of Johnson’s regime and much wheezing and foaming at the mouth in the right wing news-sheets.

Far more worrying is the news that the UK government is to introduce legislation that will enable academics, students or visiting speakers who are no-platformed to sue universities for compensation where they feel they have suffered because of free speech infringements.

Announcing the measures, the education secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind. But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”

These measures are restricted to English universities.

The proposal is one of a range of legal measures put forward by the education secretary. Other measures include: the Department for Education will appoint a “free-speech champion” for higher education; a new free speech condition will be placed on universities in order to access public funding, and the higher education regulator in England, the Office for Students (OfS), will have the power to impose fines in the case of breaches.

This is weird and chilling and effectively imposes the possibility of the hard-right, racists and homophobes to impose their views directly into campus life against the will of the student body. It’s an extraordinary departure based on a wholly misplaced sense of crisis.

This is the culmination of years of narrative-framing by Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, Spiked!, James Delingpole and the panoply of libertarian campaigners railing against contemporary political culture. As has been pointed out by Universities UK: “There are already significant legal duties placed on universities to uphold freedom of speech and universities are required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.”

A 2018 report by the parliamentary human rights committee reported, “We did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested”. The cross-party group noted that student groups were not obliged to invite particular speakers, or to never cancel previously planned events, and that speakers were free to decide they did not want to share a platform with others. “None of these is an interference on free speech rights.”

The University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, has stated: “It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.”

Instead we have a hysterical and paranoid cabal of people imposing dangerous and misguided legislation that poses a real threat to democracy on campus. Many of the people who complain of ‘cancel culture’ do so from positions of considerable power and the dark irony is that these advocates of “free speech” will be crushing democracy in English universities. This is about power.

As Mic Wright puts it (‘Beaker in the bunker: The paranoid style in British right-wing journalism’):

“The gulf between what Heffer says and what he means is so vast that not even Boris Johnson would propose digging a tunnel under it. It as a variant of the now daily call by right-wing columnists that “free speech be defended”, which actually means that they want their speech defended from all criticism and are very relaxed about the silencing of people not from their political tradition.”

“Even as he rails about the prescriptiveness and intolerance of others, Heffer exhibits both traits by the bucketful. He is offended by other people’s opinions and wants state power to censure them. He wants the version of history that he finds cosy and comfortable to prevail over one that would honestly reckon with Britain’s bloody and brutal conduct over centuries.”

This is about power, their declining power and the suppression of dissent and critical thinking.



Comments (66)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Of course, one of the most chilling constraints on free speech in the UK is the state-enforced Official Secrets framework, which imposes a lifelong injunction of silence upon its subjects, primarily it seems so they cannot reveal the nefarious workings and embarrassing past of the Empire. Will whistleblowers get to sue the government?

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      As is the whole protectionist culture of confidentiality in general, of which the Official Secrets Act is but a part.

  2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    How might ‘hard-right, racists and homophobes… impose their views directly into campus life against the will of the student body’?

    1. With considerable ease if the policies go ahead as proposed.

      Any opposition to X voice will be deemed ‘no platforming’ and the speaker will have the right to sue the university which will also have the threat of its funding being withdrawn. Sorry i though that was clear in the article.

      1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

        Yes, I know; and I agree that the proposed legislation is superfluous. I was just wondering how someone expressing certain views equates with their imposing them.

        1. In the sense that their views could be imposed against the wishes of that community. A BNP speaker imported into a largely black campus for eg.

          1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            But, in that sense, what right does the majority of a student community to impose its wishes on any of its minority audiences, however much the former disagrees or is offended by any speaker the latter might import. That’s just tyranny. Just imagine the furore there would be if the boot was on the other foot and the righteous were in a minority.

            Challenge rather than cancel.

          2. That’s quite easy for you to say as a white man, who – I don’t know – I presume has other privileges?

            This might be an abstract debate to discuss for you but it’s not for others in this scenario.

          3. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            But privilege is precisely what I’m talking about. Why should the views of a majority, whatever and however popular these might be, be privileged over those of a minority, whatever and however unpopular these might be? Why is any such privileging not an abuse of power?

            I appreciate that, to gain some political advantage, the Right would like to cancel the voices of the Left and the Left would like to cancel the voices of the Right on campus and in the media generally. I couldn’t give a toss about this ideological struggle; it’s nothing but theatrical self-indulgence on the part of rival fantasists, and life goes on despite it.

            I also appreciate that throughout history certain classes of people have had their voices cancelled by those who have enjoyed greater power thanks to the disposition of the relations of production that obtain at the time.

            This latter matters to me more. I just don’t see anything progressive about simply replicating this same inequality among different historical players. It does nothing to advance ‘decolonisation’; that is, our collective liberation as a society from heteronomy (the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another) to autonomy (the state of self-governance).

          4. I don’t think its so much a question of the Left and the Right as the powerful and the powerless.

            You do side-step your own privilege in this discussion quite neatly but not quite neatly enough.

          5. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            And is the debate around decolonisation and independence really an abstract one? More abstract than the debates between ‘Right’ and ‘Left’?

          6. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            What privilege is that?

          7. As I said – I don’t know. I’m presuming your white, male, and well educated. I don’t know your economic status.

          8. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            And what special right or advantage has my being classified as ‘white’ and ‘male’ given me in the pursuit of my achievements?

            Many disadvantaged white males might feel alienated by and resentful of the assumption that they’re especially ‘privileged’, simply in virtue of their racial and/or sexual classification. I can even see how white supremacism and misogyny might feed off that resentment.

            But this abandonment of disadvantaged white males by the Left to the predations of the populist Right is another matter. We were discussing the wisdom of suppressing dissonant voices in our academic communities – or at least the ones we don’t like.

          9. Its certainly true that identity categories that dont include class and power are insufficient, but arguing that there’s no such thing as white privilege or that being male in a patriarchal society doesn’t offer some advantage is odd.

          10. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            But I’m not arguing that. I’m just wondering what special rights or advantages I’m supposed to have enjoyed as a white male in the pursuit of my achievements and which are also supposed to be the cause of my error in thinking that in our public discourse no voice (‘black’ or ‘white’, ‘male or female’, ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, ‘Unionist’ or ‘Nationalist’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘proletarian’) should be privileged over any other – that everyone should be allowed their say.

            I can see how each side would seek an advantage in the competition for power by trying to cancel the other’s voice in that discourse. But I’m not taking sides here in the struggle for domination. Rather, I’m taking the side of the general democratic will that emerges from free speech as a sublation of ALL of our conflicting voices.

          11. I suppose “everyone having their say” sounds lovely – but I don’t think we’re living in the world of Swallows and Amazons.

            In a world which has been made more toxic by those voices that remain entrenched in power and privilege it doesn’t really work like this. “This week we’ll have the Nazi speak and next week you’ll have your say”.

            It’s not that your privilege as a white male has caused you the ‘error in thinking’ – its just that you are unlikely to feel any of the consequences in the same way as other groups may do.

            For you this is an entirely abstract debating point, for others far less so. I’m not sure how this point is controversial.

          12. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Okay, so you disagree with my twee position that everyone should be able to have their say and none should be ‘silenced’, ‘cancelled’, ‘no-platformed’, or whatever term you want to use. From a purely practical point of view, then, who shouldn’t be able to express their views in our academic communities and why? What should a university’s policy be on the matter of who can or cannot speak?

            (BTW: I still don’t see why being a white male would make me immune from the consequences of having my voice silenced and/or being offended to an existential degree, let alone make me in some sense ‘privileged’. Of course, I can’t know what it’s like to be classified as ‘black’ or ‘female’, being neither of these things; but how do you know what it’s like to be me that you can classify me as ‘privileged’?)

          13. No, I just dont think that the position is a simple or as simply experienced as you suggest.

            This is fun: a review of 10,000 speaker events found that six had been cancelled: four lacked the required paperwork, one was a fraudster recruiting for a pyramid scheme and the other was Jeremy Corbyn, whose rally was simply moved to a larger venue off-campus (from The Times).

          14. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Yes, I agree that the proposal’s somewhat extravagant in its response to the concerns expressed by the JCHR and those who gave evidence to it. Plus, it’s a Conservative minister who’s making that proposal, so it can’t be right.

  3. Wul says:

    The Scottish educationalist A.S. Neil, who was often accused of letting children run riot in his Summerhill schools, made a clear distinction between “Freedom” and “License”.

    Freedom is the ability to choose our actions within an agreed set of rights and responsibilities. License is official permission to do or use something for our own purposes.

    What these already free, already powerful, already articulate and privileged actors are seeking is official license to say whatever they want to whomever they chose. They will soon be able to legally punish those who get in their way.

  4. Axel P Kulit says:

    I can foresee Young Conservative groups opposing say BLM speakers ensuring the university gets fined. I can also see universities making students sign clauses promising to indemnify the university of they get fined and making that grounds for expulsion.

    Lawyers must be rubbing their hands. Either they make money or reputation. Perhaps both.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      How would the YCs do that, Axel? Why would a university ‘no-platform’ a BLM speaker at anyone’s behest when the proposed legislation would enable the BLM speaker to then sue the university for infringing his/her right to free speech?

  5. SleepingDog says:

    What are these damages supposed to be for? Hurt feelings? Is there a right to speak at universities that is somehow potentially being infringed? Could someone make a living just by suing universities (or top up a low income like a minister’s salary) for their non-appearance? Oh, to be a dinfluencer of the British Cacocracy!

    Some of this seems to be an attempt to establish a false centrism, a debating-club idea of moving the cloth barrier for verbal jousting off to one side into the royal enclosure, rather than attempt seriously draftable legislation.

    The only sensible tactic would seem to be to go on the offensive, press on with the unearthing, digitising and publishing of historical colonial archives and records in conjunction with similar movements round the world. Let archives and loot hoards and oral histories of the colonised speak. Let freedom of information reign and shine sunlight into the dark shadows under the British imperial cloak. If freedom of speech is such a sacred British value, why is the head of state’s tongue tied? Why cannot the Queen give her views on imperialism like the Irish President can?

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      As far as I can see, the proposed legislation would establish a right for all staff, students, and visiting speakers to challenge conventional wisdom by putting forward and discussing ideas that may be controversial, unpalatable, or even deeply offensive, as well as sanctions for any university that fails to observe that right, a ‘university’ being an entire academic community and not just its governance.

      Understandably, some are unhappy with this proposal because it would permit people whom they don’t like to express ideas they find disturbing or offensive. Apparently, to do so would be to somehow ‘impose’ those ideas on the campus community.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Foghorn Leghorn, OK, cheers.

        For a start, I would say that speakers at university during my undergraduate studies were a microscopic part of the expression of ideas, and many students may never listen to any. I can only remember one invitee, a politician, and cannot remember if I bothered attending. Apathy was a much greater concern back then. Anyway, of much larger concerns were the curriculum, the views (narrow or broadminded, open or proselytising, up-to-date or out-of-date, school-following or wide-ranging), professionalism and competencies of staff; access to resources in library and elsewhere; and the discussions with other students (probably best if a wide variety of views, maybe helped by encouraging our European neighbours to mix).

        Further, I think that speakers attending a university in person seemed outdated even back then, and should be strongly discouraged, as a backwards custom of climate-disregarding jet-setting. If students want yet more lecturers, they can easily access these online. Not to mention costs, security and safeguarding issues.

        In your linked paper introduction, Gavin Williamson writes about “Students have been expelled from their courses, academics fired and others who have been forced to live under the threat of violence.” I have no idea what he is talking about, but since his big schtick at the Ministry of Defence was to force others to live under the threat of violence, fantasising about terrorising China with our mighty aircraft carriers, I expect he is just a delusional arsehole.

        If Williamson was serious about freeing the minds of British youngsters, he should propose banning private schools (as they promote elitism and exclude many opposing viewpoints), religious schools (indoctrination) and make everyone go to comprehensive melting-pots.

        There is a bit of fake history in the paper about the historical role of universities, which royal-chartered bodies banned non-conformists. Does anyone know what Wikipedia says were the sections of the Act of Uniformity 1662 that were still in force in 2010?

        The issue of lawful expression is, of course, related to the British draconian security state (where apparently government use of secret courts, secret evidence and news-suppressing ‘D’-notices have escalated in recent years, according to reports).

        Also, since the Conservatives opposed all the thrilling examples of historical free speech given in the paper, as far as I can see, this only puts them on the wrong side of the history of free speech in the country.

        Anyway, this is surely fabricated outrage in large part, since the Government wants to close down discussion of British Imperial past in UK cultural institutions and cut the UK off from the larger overseas move towards examination of colonial and cold-war-era crimes.

        1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

          I only ever attended two such campus events: David McLellan, who was invited to speak by the university’s history society, and Harry McShane, who was invited to speak by the Socialist Workers Party, just before its retreat into sectarianism. Harry, who was almost 90 by then, got a rough ride from a phalanx of schismatics for some past heresy; basically, he was shouted down or ‘silenced’ by those who disapproved of his ‘concrete propaganda’ (as dissonant views were called at the time). Plus ça change… eh?

          I also only ever attended lectures I found useful. It still rankles that one reader wouldn’t let me sit in on his lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, on the spurious grounds that I’d missed his opening readings and therefore wouldn’t be able to follow his subsequent narrative – the b*st*rd!

          Which is why I find your perception of a university ‘curriculum’ strange. In my day, universities were places of study where you pioneered your own ‘curriculum’, using all the resources to which the university gave you access. That’s why I decided to join a university in the first place: I was studying Hegel at the time, with a view to gaining the working understanding of Hegel that would enable me to deepen my understanding of Marx, and had got stuck; I needed the resources of a university to get unstuck. Have universities really become places of disciplined consumption rather than free production, wherein you process a set diet of information rather than cultivate your own understanding? Have they altogether lost their humanism?

          Thank goodness for the internet, then, which might yet come to serve the function that universities did, and to serve it more comprehensively and accessibly. I wish such a global, democratic ‘university without walls’ had been around in my day; it would have saved me so much sacrifice and strife, notwithstanding the privileges I enjoyed as a white man, in pursuit of my education.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Foghorn Leghorn, I guess some people might go to university to learn more about their current-crush great white man of history, but it is more common to study subjects and learn skillsets. I do know that representatives of large and prestigious universities were keen to promote course and syllabus/structure/aim information, and Oxford (since we are using that example) have this text on their undergraduate admissions page:
            “Do you already know what you want to study? Have you explored all our courses in the subject areas which interest you? Make sure you really know your options and don’t immediately go for the obvious choice. The most inspiring course maybe something you didn’t know existed!”
            which seems to reasonably assume that prospective students may not yet know where their interests may develop and overlap with university provision.

            More prosaically, it is hard to see how you can decolonise the curriculum without a curriculum, even if that is only a starting point.

            Anyway, my impression was that I studied philosophy as a discipline, not as a biographical-led self-enquiry or DIY resource-plunge, which would have made little sense, even though not everyone went on to choose the Metalogic option. There are online courses like MOOCS, and these tend to be organised and structured. I’m not sure what benefit roaming the Internet per se would be.

            As far as I can see, you appear to be dodging the universities’ roles and responsibilities for setting curricular subjects and resources, and guiding students who may be fresh from school and unskilled in academic disciplines.

          2. Niemand says:

            The notion of autonomous learning survives yes and is still important. It is was distinguishes HE from secondary level. But it has become increasingly difficult to maintain since a) schools do not encourage it as they ‘teach to the test’ so much now and so students really struggle with the concept and b) like schools, HE institutions are now also hidebound by league tables and ‘results’. I return to the same theme – this is what happens when you turn education into a market.

            The idea of a curriculum is much looser in HE and there certainly is nothing like a national curriculum, not even an institutional or departmental one. Subjects devise courses of study and these evolve and change all the time sometimes due to circumstances, other times due to more ideological and academic reasons. It will also vary hugely depending on the subject as clearly highly vocational subjects will have crucial content that will endure. In the Arts and Humanities this is much more fluid. One of the arguments there is at what point do you assume what was once a foundational course of study, no longer is since eventually it all tends to pass away, not necessarily because it is no longer relevant but other more pressing and contemporary matters are and there is only so much time in this life? An example is the question of diversity – including more diverse content is gladly growing apace but some of those old white men still had something really important to say so to neglect them completely would be bizarre since if nothing else, they largely built the subject itself. But you going to have neglect some of them. At its most extreme you could argue that content is interchangeable and fluid and it is the principles of study, critical thinking etc that matter most. I am not convinced by this though as in my experience, it is the content that inspires students to be those good thinkers (and doers) so I can be loathe to ditch something when I know how much the students respond to it.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @ Niemand, well History is in Arts and Humanities, and there are critical problems in lack of diversity of sources, especially for the British Empire. This point is made over and again by Shashi Tharoor who developed his Oxford Union speech of 2015 into a book, Inglorious Empire, where he says that after a period of relative press freedom in the Raj, the oppressive Indian Press Act of 1910 was turned against Indian newspapers and editors (bond forfeiture, hard labour and closure), whilst the racist British-owned press there could incite hatred with impunity. The British did this again and again whenever there were mutterings of unrest or talk of independence in their colonies. So there is a huge history of British suppression of freedom of speech that needs to be told, drawing on sources outside of Britain.

            To make my point broader, the same applies to empires such as the French. The authors of this recent article, Will Macron’s new commission face up to all of France’s colonial atrocities? make the claim that:
            “Filming for the BBC in Niger, we were told by many Nigeriens that we were the first ever to come and ask about their history”
            History told from the viewpoints of only one vested interest, like colonisers, is bad history, yet it seems the standard form history takes in many institutions. Why are the societies impacted by British colonialism not granted the freedom of speech to express their views on British history?

          4. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Thanks for the clarification, Niemand; I did wonder about that.

            When I studied as an undergraduate at university (which, granted, wasn’t yesterday), there wasn’t a taught curriculum as such but just sets of competencies in which you had to demonstrate proficiency before you could be awarded the degree towards which you were working and a list of prescribed texts through the study of which you could develop those proficiencies. Students on exchange from US universities, I remember, who were accustomed to being spoon-fed by instructors, used to struggle with this more autonomous learning regime.

            Perhaps the increased demand in the labour market for more standardised/commensurable graduates has driven our universities to develop a more curricular type of regime on the US model. ‘Factory education’, as I think I called it elsewhere.

          5. Niemand says:

            Yes I think you are right about the shift. The idea of giving out set texts and essentially saying get on with it till some exams would simply not be tenable. In final year it is a bit more like this though.

            This is due to a lack of autonomous thinking and too much earlier spoon-feeding, but, and it is a big but, the world is much more complex place than it was and the skills students need to survive and thrive are multiple and demanding and more so than when I were young. This requires a much more structured approach to course design and much more support. If I think back to when I was a student in the early 80s, the level of support was woeful and the availability of staff outside lectures almost non-existent. I dropped out after a year.

            I don’t envy young people – they experience far more pressure than I ever did at 20 and I spend quite a bit of my time counselling students not to worry so much and even say yes, want to leave because you don’t feel this is for you and feel really miserable and a failure? Do it, I say, it might be the best thing you ever did and they say, ‘really I can just go, drop out, but won’t that ruin my life?’ I tell them it never ruined mine. Society has a lot to answer for in this respect.

          6. Pub Bore says:

            I hear ya!

            I envy them their youth. But I don’t think university would be much use to me now. Maybe I’ve just become a man from another time. “I grow old … I grow old …
            I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

          7. Alec Lomax says:

            Pub Bore – Eat a peach!

          8. Niemand says:

            @SleepingDog I’m not a historian so can only comment tangentially and what I know of the history department where I work where the syllabus has always been aware of the things you cite and even more so now. Of course I agree with your general point but when you say ‘History told from the viewpoints of only one vested interest, like colonisers, is bad history, yet it seems the standard form history takes in many institutions’, I am wonder what you are basing your ‘many institutions’ on? There is a danger of basing what we think of HE on Oxbridge and their ilk. HE is highly devolved and individualised across the UK and though this brings some problems, is a very good thing. So the approach to teaching about Empire and colonialism at say, Chester or Stirling can be totally different to Oxford or St Andrews. It is a source of frustration to me that whenever discussion comes up about the state and future of HE and what it teaches, the reference point always start with Oxbridge. In my 23 year career to date I have had literally zero to do with either institution in all that time.

          9. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, you are right to question my impression of how history is taught, although history is also taught outside the formal subject of History. For example, our modern history primer for politics was TE Vadney’s The World Since 1945, which claimed that the Allies treated defeated Germans much more favourably after WW2 than WW1, a claim I now view as wrong, and one-sided, more Morgenthau Plan than Marshall.

            I based my claims on wider modern readings, and analogies with other subjects where there have been similar rebellions against orthodoxies (like in economics, which experienced a widespread student protest). Specifically regarding history, I would draw upon the work of Keith Lowe on national myths, writers from ex-colonial states like Shashi Tharoor, scholars of empire like John Newsinger, of black history like David Olusoga (‘a forgotten history’), of British political history like Mark Curtis (‘web of deceit’), of financial history like Nicholas Shaxson, of historiography like Michel-Rolph Trouillot (Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History) among others, and general comments about the teaching of history as national history in other countries (Netherlands and Poland, for example, have recently been in the news).

            Although the British opium war on China is more widely talked about these days, I only originally found out about it in a novel by Michael Moorcock. This has been a repeating pattern of discovery during my lifetime.

            I also draw on documentaries which cover the construction of history, as in Lucy Worsley’s History’s Biggest Fibs series, and of particular interest (it is currently available on BBC iPlayer) Peter Barton’s The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire:
            which goes into some depth of criticism about British histories of WW1 which fail to draw on German sources, and the rather feeble excuses made for this. That is, Barton says his documentary is exceptional because it takes in the viewpoints of people the British were fighting.

            I should make exception for histories where there is only one source of records available, but even then, as Mary Beard says in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, other disciplines like archaeology can provide corroboration or disproof. Also excepted are short corrective histories which take a large body of mainstream history as a given, and do not include much repetition of its sources when adding a new perspective.

            Naturally, I hope that the teaching of History has and will continue to improve. Richard Norton-Taylor has mentioned an EU proposal for a common European history, and perhaps a common World History is a someday-achievable goal, that will integrate with planetary natural history.

  6. Kevin Hattie says:

    We really do live in strange times.

  7. Dan Linehan says:

    Why has free speech become owned by the right now? I can’t imagine a right wing speaker winning over many young people at university… and yet it’s the Tories who are ‘wheezing and foaming at the mouth’?
    I think we need to stop wringing our hands, we have to have debates in the open; a square go- my ideas against yours. If we push differing opinions underground we give them the allure of the forbidden. Let the BNP air their views, they shouldn’t be able to compete with Liberalism, if they can, it’s time to sharpen your argument.

  8. Dan Linehan says:

    Article aside, I think there is a pretty shameful attempt to silence foghorn leghorn on account of his perceived whiteness and sex… from the editor no less. White, male, well educated, these characteristics are apparently enough to disqualify one from comment, at least until they have ‘taken account’ of their privilege, oofty.
    As many know, Foghorn Leghorn is a rooster, a male chicken, yet he is by my reckoning 25% brown, is that no enough oppression points to comment?

    1. I’m not silencing anyone at all – Foghorn Leghorn is a very regular poster on this forum. The issue is challenging his idea that the UK govts proposals are excellent ones – and contesting that this isn’t an abstract issue for some people in this debate. The issue also raised – which I thinks legitimate – is whether there is such a thing as white privilege and indeed male privilege.

    2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      No, Dan; Mike made a valid point about the disadvantage particular classes of people have experienced in having their voices heard, and I’d agree with him over the need to remove that disadvantage. Where I’m disagreeing is over the suggestion that the best way to do this is by now privileging those voices.

  9. H Scott says:

    This is excellent news. Anything that protects free speech is to be welcomed.
    It’s very telling that the left oppose free speech, as exemplified in this article. The idea that the public need ‘protected’ from certain ideas or thoughts (wrongthink) is typical of left-wing bourgeois condescension.

    1. James Mills says:

      Well said , Simon Heffer !

    2. Alec Lomax says:

      Rather, old boy!

      BTW, Mr Heffer wrote a fine book about Vaughan Williams !

  10. Kevin Hattie says:

    What evidence is there for the claim that free speech is under attack in the UK education system?

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      The UK government’s proposal has been formulated in response to this report:

      1. Kevin Hattie says:

        Thanks for sharing these with me, FL.

        I’ll try and read them over the next couple of days. I’m not entirely convinced that the situation is as grave as certain sections of the media would have us believe, but I’m prepared to change my mind if the evidence suggests otherwise.

    2. Very little.

      As I said in the article: a 2018 report by the parliamentary human rights committee reported, “We did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested”.

      1. Kevin Hattie says:


        The conclusion quoted doesn’t rule out the possibility that issues do exist. But it does indicate that there is an issue with the way things are portrayed in the media. You’d be forgiven for thinking the Red Guard had been unleashed across campuses from some of the rhetoric in the right-wing press.

        1. Yes. As we’ll be laying out in a subsequent article the roots and funding for these initiatives are (predictably) a network of far-right organisations funded by dark money

          1. Kevin Hattie says:

            I anticipate another compelling and informative article.

            Echoing Adam Curtis’s recent documentary, it’s hard to work out fact from fiction in the post-truth age. As an ordinary punter who isn’t very skilled at figuring out which sources to trust (beyond the obvious exceptions, eg. The Sun, Fox News etc won’t be trusted), it can be incredibly frustrating and demoralising navigating these issues. I really value the work you guys do here on Bella.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @Kevin Hattie, it can be relatively easy to spot hypocrisy, however. If this Conservative government was really keen on celebrating the history of British free speech struggles, it would surely have jumped at the chance to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Peterloo in 2019. However, that event is a terrible embarrassment for Conservatives, especially since they enacted the draconian suppression of free speech in the Six Acts after their forces massacred peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in what some see as the British equivalent of ‘Tianamen Square’.

            There are a great many restrictions on free speech in the UK, some of which I have mentioned in comments here. Another kind is from the English laws relating to slander and libel, which some view as overly-protective of rich and powerful, while the poor and powerless increasingly lack access to courts to speak on their own behalf. Another line of enquiry would be to question related areas, such as freedom of information (and its many exemptions, and how it is resisted in practice) which should have led to more transparent practices, if the spirit was followed. Or look at whether official archives are easily accessible and online, and what remains hidden.

            Look at free speech campaigns elsewhere, like in Thailand, and wonder why the UK still retains similar kinds of legislation that under a new monarch, the government might start to enforce again:
            Calling for a republic in the UK is still punishable by life imprisonment. Does that sound like the bastion of liberal expression that Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson describes? Do we hear any Conservative Minister calling for strong action against allied regimes for their repression of free speech? Does the UK have a flourishing pluralism in its politics, or is Westminster mostly dominated by one of two parties, whose concerns do not largely reflect those of the common people? Do people who remain in the British Empire’s overseas territories have their voices heard here?

            And fundamentally, if such a right is so important, why do Conservatives not support a codified constitution where such a right may be enshrined and overrule all other domestic legislation (apart from legitimised exemptions), as it is supposed to in the USA?

          3. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Yes, I think Williamson (and/or the Joint Committee on Human Rights) cited the influence of ‘dark money’ as a concern in relation to the defence of free speech on campuses.

          4. SleepingDog says:

            @ Foghorn Leghorn, or breezily upfront money:
            Who pays the piper calls the tune, and all that.

          5. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Sorry, SD; I fail to see what the issue of political donations to the Republican Party in the US immediately have to do with that of (possible) investment in the disruption of free speech on British campuses.

          6. SleepingDog says:

            @Foghorn Leghorn, well, for a start, it muzzles an institution’s views on that person:
            and by extrapolation, where they come from. Oxford University is hardly going to come out against billionaireship. Perhaps we should not use the word ‘philanthropist’. What do they really get out of it? Where did they get their loot? After all, some institutions have refused or handed back donations. Surely you are not denying the corrupting influence of money? As Catherine Bennett writes in the linked article Just what was it exactly that Oxford University saw in the billionaire boss of Ineos?
            “While historical racism has become impossible for the university to ignore, Oxford’s tradition of venerating the rich is still embraced by the vice chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson.”

          7. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Are you suggesting that Oxford University might ‘no-platform’ a voice that’s critical of billionaireship at the behest of a billionaire donor? Is there any evidence that OU has ever done this sort of thing before? What, then, would make it likely that such an infringement of free speech will happen in the future?

            And in answer to your question: OU probably saw in the billionaire boss of Ineos exactly what the Scottish government saw in him (and in the billionaire boss of the Trump Organisation): dollar signs!

          8. SleepingDog says:

            @Foghorn Leghorn, the article I linked made some relevant and reasonable points related to freedom of speech:
            that university decisions might be influenced by threats of donor withdrawals
            donors may expect confidentiality, that is a lack of transparency amounting to secrecy which is antagonistic to ideas of free speech
            that donations might amount to reputational whitewashing which may confer an amount of immunity from criticism from the institution
            that Cecil Rhodes’ donations seem to have been effective in minimising expressions of views challenging British imperialism and colonial conquest

            On the point of the corrupting power of money (surely you learnt something from Marx?), donations are not the only concern, of course. If the state was secretly paying its academic assets for their services (in recruiting, say, or propagandising), this would also corrupt the institution, and perhaps the expressions of these academics would no longer be free but chained to the policies of outside agencies. My suspicion would be that, occasionally, a university management might weed out these assets, perhaps merely as a process of removing dead wood, or even acting on principle. Gavin Williamson (as an apparently unrepentant Privy Counsellor, an odd occupation for a professor of free speech) may intend his legislation to prevent universities sacking these state assets. At the moment, universities might be able to sack academics who take on such payments, as the University of Edinburgh conditions of employment puts it:
            “Other Paid Employment
            “You must not take on additional paid work, including with the University of Edinburgh/ its subsidiaries or self-employment, which adversely affects your job performance, presents a conflict of interest, has an impact on health and safety or breaches the Working Time Regulations.”
            but if the “additional paid work” was a state secret, the university might not be able to bring that as evidence in an employment tribunal.

            If only we had an informative Freedom of Information request answer on UK state assets (paid or otherwise) in British universities.

            Incidentally, the UK Ministry of Defence apparently listed “investigative journalists” as the first of its “non-traditional threats”. I wonder if the Right Honourable Gavin Williamson removed this trashing of free speech when he was Secretary for Defence? About as likely as him being photographed in a I ♡ Wikileaks T-shirt, I guess.

          9. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Yeah, I get what you’re saying about the risk of public funding and private donation being used as levers of power in influencing corporate decision-making within academic communities. But risk is a product of harm and likelihood. I agree that such an abuse of power would be harmful, but how often does it actually occur? Where’s the evidence that it’s a frequent occurrence? As Mike has pointed out, there are very, very few instances of free speech infringements on British campuses. There’s also no evidence whatsoever of the threat of withdrawal of private donation has had any material influence on the formulation of universities’ free speech policies; though, in its proposal, the government is making access to some public funding conditional on the universities having more robust policies and procedures in this area.

            It’s not unusual for government to do this, though. When I worked in the independent sector, local authorities used public funding to police the behaviours of voluntary and business associations – to police our policies, in other words – in order to ensure that those behaviours complied with current ‘best practice’ (aka the prevailing values in society at the time). It’s just run-of-the-mill public regulation of our corporate activities.

        2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

          I tend to agree, Kevin; though I haven’t been part of an academic community for nearly 35 years, so I can’t really judge. Nieland says that there’s some self-censorship by individuals within communities, from fear of being harmed.

          I also think the existing protections are sufficient, providing they’re implemented by universities. One of the pieces of evidence the Joint Committee on Human Rights commissioned (an analysis of UK university free speech policies by Dr Diana Beech, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, which was published on 9th February 2018) investigated this and found many of these policies wanting. So, I might be wrong in this too.

        3. Niemand says:

          Yes it should not be exaggerated and it is being so. But it does exist. I work in a university and a lot of it is hidden, sublimated, unspoken. The ‘nothing to see here, move along’ stuff is as wide of the mark as the idea of the Red Guard. The trouble is people can only see this issue from the perspective of their own political silos and it isn’t helping. Many of the major controversial issues actually cut across the left / right political paradigm.

          1. Kevin Hattie says:

            @Sleeping Dog

            Yeah, I can see that there is definitely an inconsistency when it comes to the specific instances of free speech that get raised on the right and those they ignore.

            As @Niemand points out, though, there may be issues that get buried away amid the hysteria in the press.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @Kevin Hattie, there is also a question of whether someone is speaking on their own behalf, or as an unacknowledged mouthpiece of another party. Take, for example, the recent report on a controversial paper by a Harvard academic claiming (against the tide of opinion, it seems) that Korean ‘Comfort Women’ entered into consensual contracts with Japanese during WW2:
            His right to publish such an academic opinion was apparently supported by at least one of his critics. Let us suppose that the quality of his work met minimum academic standards. Now, suppose that this Harvard Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies turned out to be in the secret pay of a Japanese agency. In that case, should his defence of academic freedom be denied? This is not an uncommon possibility; the USAmerican CIA has apparently spent some of its huge budget on retaining academic assets around the world. Some of the academics (a network of Oxbridge dons) mentioned in Richard Norton-Taylor’s book The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain, were allegedly paid by, and recruited for, British intelligence agency MI6.

            So, suppose such an asset were to publish something in their own name that turned out to be state (or corporate) propaganda, should their protections still apply once discovered? What if two such assets working for the same agency appeared on opposite sides of a public debate? Might they be legitimately be banned in future by the hosting organisation who later found this out? In other words, are there systematic ways in which a powerful organisation might abuse freedom of speech and hope that they could legislate themselves out of trouble (bearing in mind that certain UK agents and assets may already be immune from prosecution)?

            Should freedom of speech protection apply to lies that the UK state apparatus spreads through British media at home or abroad (certain foreign agencies can have their licences revoked for such behaviour, although I don’t know of any friendly-country organisations so treated)? Or is that exactly the kind of abuse that gives freedom of speech a bad press?

          3. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            I agree. The ‘Right’/’Left’, ‘Swallows’/’Amazons’ thing is a big part of the problem, where each side insists that the other should be denied a platform. The situation has at least the potential to become as toxic as it appears to be on some US campuses.

  11. Niemand says:

    It is odd that at the same time as this, Williamson is suggesting that universities must adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism or face financial sanction (see recent article on this site). There is a good argument that the IHRA definition can lead to a curtailing of free speech such as criticisms of certain aspect of Israeli policy.

    I see no need for this legislation though not really for the reasons highlighted here. I don’t hold with ‘cancelling’ of speakers, though robust protest is to be lauded. I can see why this has come up though: I work at a university and there is a climate of fear about this sort of thing at the moment with people holding their tongues far more than in the past. This may not lead to actual ‘cancellations’ but it is leading to self-censorship, avoidance of certain research areas and if not, vilification of those who do dare stick their head above the parapet. This stuff can be hard to prove and all I can say is that is it is happening and it never used to, to anything like the same degree as now anyway. University hierarchies themselves have shown great cowardice in not protecting academic freedom by either bowing to protest, or not, but then issuing these craven (and empty) apologies about ‘hurt’ nevertheless. But they are not doing this because they really care about the issues but due to the marketisation of HE, are literally now scared of alienating certain sectors of younger people especially, getting terrible publicity as a result and thus a backlash in terms of recruitment. People perhaps are unaware how precarious the finances of many institutions are. In other words universities’ stances on this matter are mostly finance driven at heart.

    So the answer to avoid the curtailing of academic freedom and free speech of non-mainstream views (kind of what the point of universities are for), is not specific legislation like this but a freeing of universities from the market and especially the utterly fake market that is HE these days. Beyond that, we need a change of climate to a less toxic debating environment and I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen but it certainly won’t be brought about by yet more legislation. If anything that will make it worse.

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