Media Reports on Campus Free Speech “Out of Kilter with Reality”


“The press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality,” says a new report on free speech at universities by the UK Parliament. “Any inhibition on lawful free speech is serious, and there have been such incursions, but we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.”

The report, “Freedom of Speech in Universities,” continues:

During our inquiry, we have heard first hand from all the key players in the university setting, including students, student society and student union representatives, vice-chancellors and university administration staff. A large amount of evidence suggests that the narrative that “censorious students” have created a “free speech crisis” in universities has been exaggerated.” 

For example:

Two of the incidents which are most commonly cited (including by the previous Universities Minister) as evidence of students restricting free speech by “no platforming” speakers are student protests at Germaine Greer’s appearance at the University of Cardiff in 2015, and the refusal of a NUS Officer to share a platform with Peter Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church University in 2016. But in both these cases the speaker’s freedom of speech was not curtailed as they were not stopped from giving their talks. On the contrary, as Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cardiff, said, the Germaine Greer incident should be held “up as an example of us valuing these things and protecting academic freedom.” These are actually examples where students manifested their right to freedom of expression through peaceful protest or refusing to share a platform with someone.

Additionally:

The Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham told us that in the year 2016–17, out of 779 external speaker requests, only three were rejected and this was due to the “requests arriving too late to process.” Even where things go wrong, such as the protests at Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP’s speech at the University of the West of England on 2 February 2018, the difficulties can be caused by outsiders, rather than students or the university itself.

That said, the reports notes concern over “real problems which act as disincentives for students to put on challenging events” and adds:

Whilst most student union officers who responded to our survey (comprising 33 responses in all) say they are confident that they and their companions can speak freely, such disincentives could be having a wider ‘chilling effect’, which is hard to measure.

Helpfully, the report notes that various kinds of activities often get lumped together under the heading of “no platforming,” and that this is confusing, as not all of these activities are contrary to principles of free speech:

Student groups are not obliged to invite a particular speaker just because that person wants to speak at the university, or to continue with an invitation if they freely decide they no longer wish to hear from a particular person. Speakers are at liberty to decline to share a platform with those they oppose. Speakers can also decline to attend events if they do not wish to comply with conditions (including reasonable conditions such as lawful speech or being part of a balanced panel). None of these is an interference on free speech rights. 

In the view of the MPs who put together the report, freedom of expression is “unduly interfered with” when:

• protests become so disruptive that they prevent the speakers from speaking or intimidate those attending
• student groups are unable to invite speakers purely because other groups protest and oppose their appearance
• students are deterred from inviting speakers by complicated processes and bureaucratic procedures

The report notes that while these problems have occurred, they are “not widespread.”

The authors found some student attitudes regarding free speech worrisome:

the NUS and student unions argued that freedom of speech rights need to be balanced with freedom from harm, in that student unions need to promote a safe environment for students which is free from prejudice, discrimination, physical harm and verbal abuse. The Student Unions at the Universities of Kent, Warwick and Surrey argued that it is necessary to limit speakers who “cause harm through speech” to protect marginalised groups, such as trans people, who suffer from a significant amount of discrimination in society at large.

We are concerned that such an approach is detrimental to free speech and could prevent certain debates and viewpoints being heard.

There are, quite properly, legal restrictions on speech. Where speech leads to unlawful harassment of individuals or groups protected by the Equality Act 2010, then this is contrary to the institution’s duty to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, and would be unlawful. Mutual respect and tolerance of different viewpoints is required to hold the open debates that democracy needs. Nonetheless the right to free speech includes the right to say things which, though lawful, others may find offensive. Unless it is unlawful, speech should normally be allowed.

The report contains a section on safe spaces, lauding the idea that “there must be opportunities for genuinely sensitive and confidential discussions in university settings,” but worrying that the concept has been used to restrict the expression of certain student groups, particularly atheists and those opposed to abortion. Safe spaces, the MPs write, “cannot cover the whole of the university or university life without impinging on rights to free speech.”

There is more to the report, including a call for  “a much broader survey of students’ opinion” so as to “assess levels of confidence amongst the student body as a whole” in their ability to speak freely.

The whole report is here.

Daniel Schulze, “For Those Who See” (photo of audio-visual installation)

guest
22 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lance
Lance
3 years ago

I appreciate seeing takes skeptical of the scope of the free speech issue on campus so thanks for sharing these. I am curious what your take is on articles arguing that there is an issue. Among other problems, I believe, is an emphasis on two opposing narratives: (1) That students are turning en masse against free speech and (2) that they are not, and that what we see are largely isolated cases. However, there is a third view articulated here:

https://heterodoxacademy.org/skeptics-are-wrong-about-campus-speech/

Namely, that a small minority is wielding significant influence. This argument doesn’t seem to be receiving as much attention, but this latest piece speaks more to skepticism about it. What is your take on this argument?Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Lance
3 years ago

I would also appreciate hearing Justin’s take on that third view, as it was raised by a number of people in the “baloney” post that Justin put up two weeks ago.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

So the response comes to the contention that the evidence isn’t dispositive, and the objections raised are all by way of positing hypothetical additional evidence that, if it existed, might undermine the claim that there’s a problem. Yet what evidence we do have is certainly probative. That’s a far cry from baloney! And it requires, if we’re to do due diligence in this matter, that we continue to inquire into what’s going on before making confident proclamations one way or the other.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Given what evidence we do have, you don’t have good evidence for thinking that evidence isn’t probative. Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
3 years ago

Also, just to be clear, I didn’t say that due diligence militates against opposition to further inquiry. I said it militates against making confident proclamations one way or another. So one can be pure as the driven snow when it comes to preventing others from pursuing a line of inquiry and still end up crossways against the principle I’m defending.

It’s the running together of these kinds of distinctions that, from my perspective, looks like the inability of some folks to see just what those of us who are concerned by things like “bikelock professor” are concerned aboutReport

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Preston Stovall
3 years ago

I (and presumably Justin) take evidence to be “probative” when it is strong enough to raise some issue significantly in plausibility. One useful attempted precisification of this notion is “statistical significance”. As far as I can tell, the extent of the evidence is a bunch of data with no time series or other comparative aspect, and maybe one survey with relatively small sample size showing a change over one year. That doesn’t sound probative to me.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
3 years ago

If we think the only notion of probative evidence is statistical significance, we will rule out all sorts of things that count as worthy of further study (particularly if we lower p-values from .05 to .005). And that’s the notion of ‘probabive’ that I’m operating with; one confirmed by this entry from Merriam Webster–“: serving to test or try : exploratory”

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/probative

Report

Lance
Lance
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Thanks for the reply. I think you raise good points on all fronts. I find it fascinating that we have people who report firsthand experiences of a change in attitudes and norms on campus towards greater censorship and hostility towards opposing views, and on the other, people claiming to have had no such experiences, or to the extent that they’ve observed such instances, they seem fairly sporadic, isolated, and undiagnostic of an actual trend. What is going on here? Why is it people seem to have the complete opposite experience?

My sense is this: overall, there seems to be a trend towards increased political polarization. People seem, outside of the college campus, to be more hostile towards opposing views, more entrenched in their ideologies, and generally more us-vs-them now than they did 10 years ago. It would be astonishing to me if places that aggregate youths, many of whom are often the most politically active and engaged (granted, many of whom also are on the other end of the extreme, in that they don’t vote and don’t care about politics) would not be places where the vanguard of emerging political agendas emerge.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Lance
3 years ago

“we have people who report firsthand experiences of a change in attitudes and norms on campus towards greater censorship and hostility towards opposing views”

It seems to me that we have had people reporting such firsthand experiences in every decade of my life. Given that the decline of the Golden Age is a common trope in all societies in all periods, I’m not so sure we need much explanation for why some people find it in the universities of their lifetime.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
3 years ago

It’s reassuring to hear that there isn’t much of a free speech problem at UK universities, but then, I never thought there was. The only really worrying recent cases I know of come from US universities and colleges, which were outside the scope of this investigation.

It’s also relevant that UK free speech laws are less liberal than the US First Amendment. Some of the speech codes given the thumbs-up by this report would likely be illegal at US public universities. If Richard Spencer tried to do a speaking tour of UK universities, he would likely end up prosecuted for inciting racial hatred, whereas in the US, it’s the universities who are breaking the law if they prevent him from renting their auditorium space.Report

Preston Stovall
3 years ago

I came here to post that Heterodox Academy article that Lance linked to. Anyone who wants to contribute to these conversations needs to be paying attention to what’s going on over there. I suspect we may be at something like a watershed moment, and the people agitating for ignoring these concerns will be harder to take seriously once more data starts coming in.

Incidentally, while the two cases that Justin quoted from the article may not have shown that anyone’s free speech rights were infringed on U.K. campuses, all four of the cases I came up with off the top of my head in the last thread were clear violations of the right to free speech on U.S. campuses. Namely, Berkeley’s response to Milo, the recent outbursts against Christina Hoff Summers, the Evergreen fiasco, the students who assaulted the speakers at a discussion with Charles Murray at Middlebury College, and the philosophy instructor who is alleged to have assaulted a protester with a bike lock. At least two of those episodes involved violence on the part of the protestors (of the physical kind, not the discursive violence we are admonished about from some quarters), and in a third (Evergreen) the threat of violence was apparent. The video of that bike lock attack is particularly gruesome.Report

Josh
Josh
Reply to  Preston Stovall
3 years ago

The right to free speech is that the government will not use its monopoly on force to tell you what you can or cannot say. Other individuals preventing you from saying something in certain locations does not infringe on this right.

You might think that categorically unfettered speech is a good, and perhaps it is, but it is not a right.

I think it’s pretty amusing that after decades or centuries during which those advocating for the marginalized were shouted down or assaulted it is now, when a few advocating against the marginalized are being shouted down, that we have a free speech crisis.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Josh
3 years ago

I envy how easily you are amused. I have to work at it.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Josh
3 years ago

As an American citizen, one of the rights I possess is to engage in conversation with people in various contexts. For instance, when they freely choose to participate in those conversations in a public space not currently set aside for some other purpose. When in such a situation I’m assualted by someone with a bikelock, that right is violated. It also happens that my right to bodily integrity is violated. But the idea that philosophy instructors running around swinging bikelocks at people does not violate their right to talk to people is risible.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Josh
3 years ago

And the problem with the cases I mentioned is not that people are being “shouted down”. In each of those situations bodily violence was either used or threatened in the interest of keeping people from speaking. Vague appeals to the protestors’ supposed interest in “advocating for the marginalized” does not cover up that fact.Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  Josh
3 years ago

Don’t sell yourself short: in addition to having a legal right to free speech (assuming you’re in the US or a few other countries), you also have a moral right to free speech! The latter is more than a right to freedom from government interference, and can certainly be infringed by other individuals.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Preston Stovall
3 years ago

Are these incidents different in frequency from incidents in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s?Report

Rob
Rob
3 years ago

Podcast of folks at FIRE discussing this issue:
http://sotospeak.libsyn.com/is-there-a-campus-free-speech-crisis Report

Preston Stovall
3 years ago

Heterodox Academy member Lee Jussim put up an essay on this subject last week. One might imagine a nearby future where more participants in the public discussion surrounding these issues were as careful as Jussim with what they say and how they say it.

https://areomagazine.com/2018/03/17/the-reality-of-the-rise-of-an-intolerant-and-radical-left-on-campus/

“Are college campuses bursting with radical leftwing professors hell-bent on remaking the world in their own ideological image? Or is this image of campuses overrun by radicals overwrought rightwing propaganda?

“In this essay, I argue that both of these views are caricatures. Consequently, there is a danger of dismissing the claims as mere propaganda. Although campuses are not overrun with radical professors and students, there has been a dangerous rise in leftist intolerance that distorts scholarship, corrupts the academy, and endangers academic freedom and fundamental human rights.

“The story promoted even in some mainstream rightwing sources is that college campuses are overrun with radical students indoctrinated by even more radical professors, e.g.:

To be sure, these types of claims are not completely wrong, as I shall show in the main part of this essay. However, they are extreme and hyperbolic. These sources neither present evidence justifying such claims, nor present sufficient qualifying text to insure that readers do not come away with the impression that the articles refer to most people on campus. Whatever benefits this might have with respect to selling newspapers, or jacking up website clicks and ad revenue, it is actually counterproductive with respect to combating the very real problems of leftist bias and radicalism on campus. When rightwing outlets make these sort of extreme statements, reasonable people, inside and outside of the academy, can easily and justifiably dismiss the statements as propaganda. As such, hyperbolic rightwing critiques of universities inadvertently facilitate the unwillingness of the academy to police itself, by lending (apparent) credence to a view with some currency on the left that charges of campus radicalism reflect little but rightwing propaganda.”Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Of course the problem has been grossly exagerated in some media. That doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real and very concerning. Every serious problem is likely to be grossly exagerated by someone for a political purpose.Report