Universities

Free speech at Australian universities: Learning from the British experience

I wrote this for an outlet, but it has not been published, so I’m am posting here.

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Last month, the Minister for Education announced that former Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, would conduct an inquiry into free speech at Australian universities. Although the scope of the inquiry seems to be wide, Tehan seems to be have been driven to launch this inquiry after concerns were raised in the press about students protesting against certain speakers at events on campus. Students protesting against speakers, such as Bettina Arndt, have been accused of shutting down debate and using the threat of public disorder to force event organisers to pay a substantial amount of money for security or to cancel the event.

At a time when Tehan and his predecessor, Simon Birmingham, were being heavily criticised for their intervention in the grant awarding process of the Australian Research Council and denying funds to 11 projects that had been recommended to receive funding, an inquiry into freedom of speech and academic freedom at Australian universities seemed a perplexing choice. For many in the higher education sector, it seemed like another culture war tactic by a government that was appealing to its conservative base.

Speaking about the inquiry, Tehan suggested that one of the outcomes of the inquiry may be an adoption of an Australian version of the Chicago Statement, an initiative by a small cluster of US universities to commit to the maintenance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Focus on the Chicago Statement has been a recent development in the discourse on freedom of speech at universities in Australia, although the statement was first adopted by the University of Chicago in 2012. Professor Kath Gelber from the University of Queensland has argued that an adoption of the principles of the Chicago Statement by Australian universities would be ‘unlikely to be of benefit in resolving the issues with which the minister appears to be concerned’, and called the whole inquiry ‘expensive and unnecessary’.

The Chicago Statement was given significant attention in the Institute of Public Affairs’ two recent reports into free speech on campus, with the IPA’s ‘audits’ of free speech at Australian universities inspired heavily by similar reports on US and UK universities by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and spiked! respectively. The recent interest by both the IPA and the Liberal government in the Chicago Statement could be seen as another indicator of the importing of culture war tropes from the United States and the United Kingdom, particularly around the issue of free speech on campus.

As the discourse of free speech at Australian universities seems heavily influenced from other countries, it would be wise to consider how the debate on free speech and ‘no platform’ has recently developed in the UK, where the then Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, launched an inquiry into this topic late last year.

The concern over free speech at universities has existed in Britain for a long time, with complaints about violent students shutting down freedom of speech on campus since the late 1960s. When the National Union of Students implemented a policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists and racists in 1974, many commentators and politicians viewed this a form of ‘left-wing fascism’. The ‘no platform’ policy has existed more or less in tact since the late 1970s and is routinely held up by conservatives and libertarians as an infringement upon the freedom of speech, portraying controversial speakers as hostage to the proponents of ‘identity politics’ and ‘grievance studies’.

The Thatcher government attempted to legislate against this in 1986 by mandating that universities had a duty to ensure freedom of speech, with possible disciplinary actions taken against universities which failed to comply with the legislation. However student unions were, and are, separate legal entities to the universities and the legislation did not apply to them.

Although there have been controversies over the application of the ‘no platform’ policy at British universities since the 1970s, media attention around this subject seems to have grown in recent years, possibly exacerbated by social media. Amongst the possible reasons for this is the resurgent far right across the globe and greater opposition to this, including actions to keep racists off British campuses. Another is that there has been growing opposition to the presence of trans-exclusionary feminists, such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, on campuses and there has been a significant spotlight on the application of the ‘no platform’ policy by individual student unions and groups to these speakers.

At the same time, the Conservatives under David Cameron significantly revised the Prevent strategy, which was first devised after the July 2005 bombings to stop the propagation of radical and extremist ideas, including at universities. As a 2015 House of Lords Library Note shows, this was the main concern about the infringement upon freedom of speech until recently. It has been contested by a number of scholars and commentators that Prevent is much more damaging to free speech and academic inquiry than ‘no platforming’.

In October 2017, Jo Johnson called for the newly established Office for Students (OfS) to ‘champion free speech in UK universities’ and the following month, he announced that a parliamentary inquiry would be held. With over 100 pieces of written evidence submitted and over 35 people presenting oral testimony to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the inquiry went from December 2017 to March 2018. In comparison with the discourse surrounding the Australian inquiry, there was little, if any, mention of the Chicago Statement by any those giving evidence.

The inquiry’s report found that while there had been incursions on ‘lawful free speech’, the committee ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested’. The report did, however, call for greater intervention by the Charity Commission against student unions that ‘inhibit lawful free speech’ and recommended that ‘[e]ffective action should be taken against protestors’ who attempt to disrupt or shut down events. It was suggested that the OfS take over from the Charity Commission in regulating student unions and publish an annual report on the topic of free speech at universities.

In October 2018, a BBC Reality Check story, using FOI documents, showed that the number of incidents where free speech was curtailed at British universities was very small. Receiving responses from 120 of the 136 universities in the UK, the BBC reported that since 2010, there were only six occasions ‘on which universities cancelled speakers as a result of complaints’.

The outcome of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry, as well as the figures provided by the BBC, suggest that the concern around freedom of speech on university campuses is being promoted by conservatives and libertarians amidst a wider culture war and not driven by what is actually concerning both students and academics in higher education. Although Dan Tehan has launched a similar inquiry into free speech at Australian universities, the UK experience indicates that such an inquiry is not needed and reveals a government intent on unwisely interfering in the university sector.

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A lack of free speech? Sam Gyimah’s rehashing of a 50 year old trope

This week the website *Research published a piece by me on historicising Sam Gyimah’s claim about the lack of free speech on British university campuses. The piece is here.

 

In defence of no platform

Last week I debated Harvard University’s Lawrence Summers on free speech at universities and the tactic of no platform for The Economist. My opening statement was edited for word length, so I am posting the longer version below. 

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The principle of ‘no platform’ is that speakers or organisations that publicly espouse violent, racist or fundamentally anti-democratic ideas, as well as others forms of hate speech should be prevented from doing so. Although not limited to university campuses, student organisations across the global West have attempted to implement a policy of no platform to deny explicit racists and fascists from publicly speaking, organising or recruiting on campuses. As a defined policy, no platform began within the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK in the mid-1970s in reaction to appearances by the fascist and populist far right (particularly the National Front and the Monday Club) on British university campuses. The policy meant that invitations for far right and racist speakers would be withdrawn and prevented, venues would be off-limits to these speakers and that these organisations would not be allowed to have a physical presence on campus. This would often be enforced bureaucratically, but elements of the student movement also argued that physical confrontation might be necessary to prevent these speakers from speaking or assembling on university grounds.

Since the mid-to-late 1960s, the growing student movement in Britain, as well as across the world, had attempted to prevent certain people from speaking at universities, often representatives of the government or supporters of the Vietnam War or apartheid South Africa (as well as other controversial speakers like psychologist Hans Eysenck), but this was on a much more ad hoc basis. The policy of no platform was formulated in a period of crisis, when the forces of the far right were starting to mobilise more confidently.

Physically confronting fascists did not simply emerge as a tactic in the early 1970s, but was influenced by the anti-fascist traditions of the inter-war period. Militant anti-fascism existed across the global West in the 1920s and 1930s and although it was not as violent as in Italy or Germany, anti-fascism in Britain (and the United States) was indeed physical and confrontational. The anti-fascist movement of the 1970s, instrumental in developing the no platform policy, built upon the tactics fostered in the 1930s (and again in the late 1940s), primarily encouraging venues not to allow fascists to speak or organise in them and physically occupying public spaces where fascists attempted to congregate.

The policy of no platform, first explicitly pronounced in Britain, spread across the global West and was embraced by anti-racists in the student movements in the United States, Canada, Australia, West Germany and France, amongst others. For instance, from the mid-1970s onwards, the phrase was being used in the US by Trotskyist activists (such as those in the Spartacist League) against the National Socialist White Peoples’ Party and the Ku Klux Klan from organising on university campuses or appearing on television. In the mid-1980s, university campuses across Canada saw student activists disrupting speaking engagements of the South African Ambassador Glenn Babb. In Australia, student groups mobilised to drive far right groups, such as the Australian National Alliance and the Progressive Nationalist Party, off university campuses around the country.

As it was originally devised, the principle of no platform meant preventing violent and organised racist groups and speakers from appearing on university campuses. It was not intended to apply to the Conservative Party and other socially conservative groups. The reasoning was that these fascist organisations were anti-democratic and sought to remove the democratic rights of others, so they could not rely upon the democratic principle of free speech if it was to be denied to people they demonised.

However because the principle relied upon combining grassroots political activism with bureaucratic measures, it was extended by certain student groups to others, infamously to student groups supporting Israel and to sexists, as well as to some right-wing Tory MPs (such as Keith Joseph and John Carlisle). In more recent years, some activists have attempted to no platform radical feminists who they believe are transphobic.

The widening of the scope for no platform has led to controversy within student and activist circles since the 1970s, but while many agree on applying the principle to explicitly racist and fascist organisations and speakers, it has been individual student unions or student groups that have sought to extend it. No platform is a tactic that needs to be negotiated with regard to its immediate context and requires democratic debate over it use in any given campaign. At the moment, the NUS only applies the policy of no platform at the national level to several openly racist or jihadist groups, such as the British National Party, National Action and Hizb-ut-Tahir. Individual student unions can apply the principle to other groups depending on the local situation. No platform is about preventing what is colloquially known as ‘hate speech’ rather than speech that is merely offensive. In many Western countries, unlike the United States, this opposition to hate speech is in line with broader human rights legislation that protects people from hateful or harmful speech (although these laws are often portrayed as against ‘free speech’).

The question as to whether universities should or should not host speakers who propound offensive ideas does not fully grasp the situation. Students and activists are not simply mobilising to prevent those propounding offensive ideas, but harmful speech that is often linked to harmful actions. As institutions, universities promote the notion that they are neutral venues where competing ideas are debated and for the most part, attempt to excuse themselves from taking any action that prevents people or organisations from publicising their ideas on campus (although critics point out that anti-extremism programs, such as Prevent in the UK, have been implemented to a degree that curtails freedom of speech). With the case of the UK, universities are not allowed to hinder free speech under the Education Act no. 2 1986. However this does not apply to student unions or individual student bodies that exist as separate legal entities to the university. It is predominantly a democratic decision by the student bodies at the grassroots level to allow or not allow speakers that may engage in harmful or hateful speech, rather than the university administration.

Free speech absolutism often proposes that, above all else, university are a marketplace of ideas where students should be intellectually challenged and while students are presented with a range of ideas on campus, students also have the right not to be subjected to hateful or harmful speech and can forcefully reject proponents of these ideas. These forms of hate speech call for taking away the rights of certain sections of society and are thoroughly anti-democratic, and cannot be tolerated as within the realm of democratic ‘debate’.

When figures of the fascist or populist far right are invited to speak on university campuses (and in other public venues), these speakers do not present their ideas into a vacuum and often a broader coterie of far right forces are mobilised to attend these events, which can lead to intimidation, harassment and violence. Many students are unwilling to allow this to happen and organise to prevent these forces from coalescing on campus. In the past few years, various ‘alt right’ figures and groups have attempted to hold public events, campaign or recruit on university campuses in the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada. As the far right forces gain notoriety in an era of populism, many people, including students and other younger activists, are worried about what these forces might lead to. The battle for the university campus is part of a wider resistance to what they see as the zombie march of a regressive and reactionary right that should have been left behind by now.

No Platform book project: An appeal for sources

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I am very excited that my book project on the history of the NUS policy of no platform in the UK is moving forward. At the moment, I am on the lookout for further primary sources from no platform campaigns from the 1970s to the present (particularly from the 1980s and 1990s). So if anyone has any material relating to specific campaigns, please send an email to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com.

I am especially interested in any material relating to campaigns to prevent Enoch Powell and representatives of the apartheid regime in South Africa from speaking on university campuses in the mid-to-late 1980s.

In the meantime, you can also read this book chapter which gives an overview of the no platform policy in the 1970s and 1980s.

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