Emily Carver: Free speech is in peril at universities. But the Government has gone too far in trying to police the issue.

5 May

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The doctrine that “speech is violence” has gone mainstream. The notion is troubling and nonsensical in equal measure, yet it has wormed its way into UK universities, and now sits at the heart of renewed efforts by institutions up and down the country to clamp down on “offensive” speech.

This week it was reported that Edinburgh University has issued speech guidance to its staff on transgender issues. This includes asking lecturers to include their preferred pronouns in emails, wear rainbow lanyards on campuses, refrain from using potentially offensive labels such as “man” or “woman”, and to avoid using such phrases as “all women hate their periods”, which could be deemed to be a “microaggression” to some students.

It’s remarkable that “microaggression” has become part of our lexicon. But this nebulous term, which was coined specifically to describe acts of racism in 1970s America, now seemingly inspires the aforementioned guidance, which will see universities attempt to dictate the parameters of acceptable speech. And Scotland is not a unique case: several other Russell Group universities have also issued similar advice.

Those in favour claim that this measure will protect minorities and foster a more tolerant society – but they fail to acknowledge that the restrictions could backfire. It doesn’t take a seasoned historian to recognise that such aggressive attempts to limit speech may end up breeding a culture of suspicion, rather than one of openness and tolerance (I imagine it is now near impossible at some of our supposedly world-class universities for academics to express their objections to such guidance fear of reputational and professional damage).

Even if most lecturers at Edinburgh University will gladly abide by the rules, guidance such as this should not become the norm. A central tenet of a free society is freedom of expression; those who hold unpopular opinions to express themselves just as much as those whose views fit the du jour, progressive, shibboleth. It is troubling that anyone might feel coerced to put their pronouns in their email signature, or to wear a rainbow lanyard, for fear of ostracisation.

Such attempts to control speech in our universities are symptomatic of a culture that has become increasingly hostile to opinion that challenges certain world views. It’s hard not to see this most recent guidance issued by one of the UK’s top universities as anything other than a concerted effort to further one set of approved ideas over others.

Fundamentally, that lecturers – who last time I checked are paid to teach and encourage critical thinking – should be put in a position where they are afraid to “misspeak” is nothing short of an affront to a liberal democracy and poses a fundamental risk to academic freedom.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto contained a promise to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has in recent months substantiated this, with a series of proposals to do just that, including the appointment of a “free speech champion” to investigate potential infringements, such as the wrongful dismissal of academics for political reasons. Further measures include a new pledge to make free speech a condition of being registered as a higher education institution and for being able to access public funding.

While it is of course welcome that the Government intends to support academics who lose their jobs due to political discrimination, attempts to impose further bureaucracy on universities may end up doing very little to remedy the problem.

There is a real danger that overregulation of the education system could lead to a loss of institutional autonomy, and freedom to criticise government policy, which is vitally important if we are to sustain a culture of academic freedom. The Russell Group of leading universities has expressed legitimate concerns over the additional bureaucracy and constraints new regulations may impose, which should not be dismissed.

Practically, as Marc Glendening of the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, the Government may well find itself hamstrung by already existing legislation, rendering top-down attempts to protect freedom of speech futile.

In order to uphold free speech in this country, the Government could start by reviewing the Equality Act 2010, which makes universities subject to its “harassment” provision. This provision is nebulously defined as words and actions that violate a “person’s dignity” and have the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.”

While (hopefully) few people would wish to create such an environment, these terms, in law, are dangerously vague and are identified by the effect they have, not the intention of the perpetrator. The Education Act 1986 also gives license to universities to ban speakers “likely to express unlawful speech”.

Governments will always be tempted to add more laws to the statute book. Indeed, many politicians see it as their sole raison d’etre – a way to show they’ve made a tangible change. But if this government is serious about restoring free speech in our country, it should start by doing away with is to do away with legislation that is actively curtailing freedom of speech.