Free speech: how can we combat campus cancel culture?

Open for Debate, Saturday 31 July 2021, Church House, London


From corporate boycotts of GB News to cancelling of gender-critical artists within cultural institutions, disputes over freedom of speech are myriad today. But perhaps the litmus test of how society deals with the challenges to freedom comes within universities.

After years of concerns being raised about no-platform polices and cancel culture on campus, the government has declared its intention to ensure that universities and colleges are ‘bastions of free thought and intellectual debate’. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill promises to ensure that no higher education providers – including student unions – will be allowed to limit lawful free speech and expression of diverse views.

Slipping quickly into ‘get-tough’ mode, Lord Wharton of Yarm, the new chairman of Office for Students, has served noticed that he’ll not be afraid to use the new powers. These include financial compensation for academics and speakers denied the opportunity to express their views, as well as fining and deregistering institutions and measures such as banning degree courses from recruiting new students.

Opinion is split on how to respond. Academic Eric Kaufmann, one of those who welcome the initiative, says the proposal represents a major advance in the struggle to defend academic freedom against progressive intolerance. He argues that conservatives and ‘gender-critical’ scholars disproportionately face political discrimination and institutional disciplinary threats, which has led to a wider culture of self-censorship.

Others – like the powerful Russell Group of 24 leading universities – are less sure. They say the proposed new measures are unnecessary when there are others already in place that they claim to support and adhere to. In the wake of the pandemic, as many universities fear going bust and hope to benefit from cash support from government, some are concerned that new measures will add an unnecessary bureaucratic cost alongside requirements under the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme, and employment and contract laws protecting staff.

Some argue that the measures are too narrow and technocratic to counter today’s censorious mood. High-profile cases of no-platforming and ‘snowflakery’ make headlines, but more subtle erosions of academic freedom are rooted in an increasingly censorious cultural outlook. A safety-first approach has led to the closing down of controversial areas of research under REF embedded ethics tests, while texts and thinkers have been sidelined in the face of demands to decolonise. A record number of students are reporting problems with their mental health, which some have pointed out correlates with government initiatives focusing on well-being and happiness. Can legally enforced rules and fines counter the culture of trigger warnings and the sidelining of material or speakers in order to protect against ‘psychological harm’?

Others worry that government interference in higher education might further undermine, rather than protect, academic freedom. Having denied that there is a free-speech problem for years, the government’s opponents say appointing a Free Speech Champion or ‘tsar’ to preside over campus represents a ‘land grab’ by a government keen to meddle in institutions that have historically been thought of as independent from political interference. For example, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said it was ‘frankly disturbing’ that some universities had not adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Is mandating what is permissible not the opposite of freedom, or perhaps even a cynical move for political gain?

How should we view the latest attempts to push free speech on campus? However well intentioned, could official demands for political ‘balance’ in universities end up leading to measures that further impinge on academic freedom? Or is this simply a welcome start to a larger battle to get campus censorship taken seriously? And as the outlook of the social-justice warrior becomes ever more embedded, with campus concerns over critical race theory, unconscious bias and the war on statues now consuming broader society, how best can universities make the case for academic freedom?

Dr Marie Kawthar Daouda
lecturer in French language and literature, Oriel College, University of Oxford; author, L’Anti-Salomé

Dennis Hayes
professor of education, University of Derby; founder and director, Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF); author, The Death of Academic Freedom? Free speech and censorship

Eric Kaufmann
professor of politics, Birkbeck College, University of London; Advisory Council member, Free Speech Union; author, Whiteshift: immigration, populism and the future of white majorities

James Murray
lawyer; senior associate, Taylor Vinters; research fellow, University of Buckingham;

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question