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It’s a Left-wing lie that free speech is safe on campus

15/07/2021

July 13, 2021

Nigel Biggar and Arif Ahmed at The Telegraph

Concern about threats to free speech in universities is commonly dismissed by the Left as a Right-wing distraction. So, last month, Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis wrote that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which had its second reading in the Commons yesterday, is “a reform in search of a problem since free speech is hardly a key issue on university campuses”.

This is wrong. There is widespread empirical evidence that the freedom to speak and research of university students and teachers in the UK is being inhibited. Those affected range from conservatives to feminist critics of transgender ideology.

See for example this post of a discussion with Kathleen Stock

And the evidence comprises not just anecdotes, but social scientific data. Four years ago, a poll of members of the University and Colleges Union revealed that 35.5 per cent of respondents admitted to self-censorship, mainly of their political views. It also found that, by European comparison, the UK’s legal protection for academic freedom was “negligible”.

The Government’s Bill will go a long way toward thawing the chill. By requiring universities to promote free speech, it will provide an internal counterweight to the “equality-and-diversity” industrial complex. By creating a new post of director for freedom of speech, it will enable the Office for Students to focus on analysing the problems into a set of solutions that will establish sector-wide norms. By authorising the director to recommend redress, it will encourage vice-chancellors to push the issue up their agendas. By allowing staff to appeal beyond their own institutions, it will support beleaguered individuals. And by extending the duty to secure free speech to student unions, it will caution student leaders against yielding to pressure to stifle dissent. 

Hopefully, the Bill when passed will stop much of the censorship and oppression we see everyday in academia. All too often this masquerades as seeking to write past wrongs, or free speech, or my favourite health and safety.

And

The Government’s Bill promises to go a long way in addressing the problem. But it could go further still. By confining academic freedom to an academic’s “field of expertise”, it fails to protect the freedom of students and academics to voice dissent from politicised curricular change – such as “decolonisation” – without fear of disciplinary action on the grounds of bringing their institution into “disrepute”. In its current form it would also still allow discussion in an academic context to attract allegations of having the effect of “harassment” under the Equality Act 2010. 

Indeed as the article’s authors write

If it were amended, the Bill could make a vital contribution to reducing political polarisation in our country. What is at stake is not merely the liberty of individuals, but the preservation of universities as places where young citizens are educated to discuss controversial ideas that excite fierce passions, and to do so in a civil, rational, and responsible manner – so that light might prevail rather than heat. What is at stake is the future of liberal public culture in Britain.

Nigel Biggar CBE is regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford. Arif Ahmed MBE is university reader in philosophy at the University of Cambridge

See as well this post and this one, both have Nigel Biggar on aspects of this issue

I should very much like to see a bill like this in New Zealand. We need one, given recent events here coupled with the current proposals on hate speech.

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