When a politician slips out a piece of news to a public replete with turkey and mince pies, watch out. You will have read of Education Minister Jo Johnson’s trenchant, uncompromising espousal of free speech in universities on Boxing Day at the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, with its threats of financial consequences in the case of backsliding. It’s arguably a step in the right direction; but looked at more closely, it was neither as trenchant nor as uncompromising as you might like to think. Let me explain why.

As with most statements waxing lyrical about free speech, it’s the bit after the ‘but’ that matters (as one earthy American commentator quipped, the size of the ‘but’ in such cases tends to be comparable with part of Ms Kim Kardashian’s anatomy). Mr Johnson, having rightly excoriated ‘no-platform’ policies, then emphasised that institutions had at the same time to ensure that they left no space for ‘hatred, discrimination, extremism or racism’. Now, on one level that’s good. Universities and student unions have no business adopting policies that are hateful or extreme, nor yet practising discrimination or racism. The stupid anti-Semitic antics of 2016/17 NUS president Malia Bouattia are an ample reminder of that. Indeed, discrimination and racism are largely illegal already. Quite rightly, no students’ union is allowed to refuse a platform to a speaker simply because he is Jewish or Israeli or homosexual, and a speaker who openly calls on audiences to detest Americans or black people is breaking the law.

But think for a moment. This vague reservation for hatred, discrimination, extremism or racism has the potential to go much, much further. Suppose a student society wants to have a debate on gay marriage, or – very topical at the moment – the proposal for gender reassignment on demand without medical endorsement? Any opponent of either is calling for different treatment for one group – isn’t this advocacy of discrimination that is beyond protection and needs to be silenced? What about a talk from a pro-lifer on abortion? That could be worse: it could (it can be said) lead to hatred, either of people who undergo the procedure or for that matter those who administer it. Again, think about a law school round-table discussion on European refugee policy, or for that matter what ought to be done about the Grenfell debacle. Hmm: dangerous. There might be argument for drastic limitation of refugee rights, or a challenge to the orgy of victim culture that since last June has surrounded Grenfell (where most of the victims were non-white). Someone at least would be able to read racism into either argument: better to be safe than sorry and refuse to allow it into the discussion. A debate on halal slaughter, the policies of the UK Libertarian Party – it does exist, I promise – or alleged indoctrination in faith schools? A clear and present danger of expressions of extremism in all three cases.



True, all the above examples come from the Right. But this is not a case of the Right seeking to look after its own. Assuming a university looking for an excuse to avoid trouble – a perennial preoccupation among higher education top brass these days – Left-wing causes are also at risk. An invitation to the Venezuelan ambassador to put his case, which he ought to have every right to do, would risk accusations of extremism and possibly hatred. Just think of the opprobrium heaped on those appalling counter-revolutionary bourgeois capitalists. So too with a debate between different schools of contemporary feminism (hatred of TERFS); an address advocating an academic boycott of Israel (racism, discrimination); advocacy from an ageing Marxist of workers’ takeover, if necessary outside the strict legalities, of the means of production and distribution (extremism); the list goes on.

Actually the current law, in the shape of s.43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 (here for those interested), goes much further than Mr Johnson’s proposals in promoting freedom of speech. Under this, any speech within the law (i.e. which is not actually illegal) is protected, and must not be interfered with by the university, its students and its employees. No ifs, no buts. The difficulty, of course, is that one has to be prepared to go to the expense of litigation to invoke it; and, as universities and others know well, most speakers and student societies do not have the money to do this.

It would be an irony if, as a result of the latest move to restore freedom of debate, vice-chancellors seeking peace and quiet, and student unions seeking stridency, were to be given an extra weapon when faced with troublesome speakers they’d like to ask to go away: that they were only doing what the minister responsible for higher education told them to do over Christmas 2017.

45 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately free speech is always dangerous ground. The freer it is, the more likely it will be to upset somebody. And we appear to be living in an era when you upset anyone at your peril. Feeling safe is currently of far more importance than allowing somebody else to speak their mind.

    • Its a struggle in the US but at least they have a guarantee in the constitution. The result is indeed rough (as anyone whose been their during an election can tell you).

  2. Another good article, although I am not sure I agree that the Left loses out from an anti-free-speech culture too! The casualty of anti-free-speech legislation (hate laws etc) is truth. Those whose policies rely on evidence, reason and logic are the ones who suffer. The Left does not use these “high-brow” concepts, but rather relies on psychological mass manipulation of the general public – a methodology to which “truth silencing” legislation is the perfect complement.

    • You’re quite correct the Left loses little because their methods are not about debate. If you have the “scientific” truth about society and how to perfect it debate is very low indeed in the list of ways of spreading this vital knowledge.

      • Agreed! The not-so-obvious fallacy in the socialist/progressive notion of creating the “perfect” society is that the implied objectivity of the word “perfect” is wholly inapplicable to “society” which has no inherent, objective purpose.

  3. As with so many other words the meaning of “safe” has been distorted to include not having to hear anything which is emotionally disagreed with. That distortion is consistent with “harm” being extended to include feelings. Neither originates with the right but are constructions of the left contrived to secure political power by controlling speech and suppressing debate.

    Johnson’s message is welcome but needs to be swiftly followed by some visible action to reinforce the point, pour encourager les autres. Otherwise it is just words à la May.

  4. Can we handle the truth? We need more than a few good students to answer this.

    Our mixed audiences of students should be on a quest to discover facts and test their opinions not protecting each other from learning and unlearning.

    Otherwise they are wasting our money; being as most of the student “loans” will remain unpaid.

  5. No platforming results in significant publicity for speaker that is turned down. The act of no-platforming is at best a counterproductive virtue signalling exercise. No platforming achieves nothing positive for SJWs
    In a similar way the campaign that ‘Hope not Hate’ have launched against advertisers in the Daily Mail have only achieved super publicity for the Mail and the errant Advertisers.

    Advertisers have worked out that SJW angst can now be used in a positive promotional fashion. This December Poundland have run an extensive Twitter campaign based around a ‘naughty elf’ It can be easily considered highly risque and indeed ‘sexist’. So shocking was it in 2017 that when it was launched many on social media believed initially it was not a real campaign but actually the actions of a discontended employee!
    https://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/668714/Poundland-Elf-on-the-Shelf-Christmas-marketing-Twitter-outrage-customers

    • Well I think that may be the case in the hands of a few bonkers Student Unions. However in general it is probably the most effective tool. Its object is to control the terms of “discourse” . So think to the BBC, or OU, Parliament itself. In fact no platforming had many years of success in closing down public discussions and rendering topics and information “invisible” to at least “polite society”. Until the advent of less controllable “platforms” such as the internet the new establishment had sewn it up. Coming a very public cropper when it foolishly allowed a “platform” to Brexiteers. Hence of course all the circling and threatening of Facebook etc. and the sudden concern about “fake news” when the fake stuff has all along been the platformed lies, now taken to be “fact” when they are often the reverse of actual facts.

  6. One side effect of this kind of contorted behaviour is to disadvantage the proponents. There are two great examples.

    – my youngest son told me that his mate, who recently went up to Oxford, has “become useless at arguing”. They’ve always engaged in vigorous debate on anything available (my son will argue about the direction the sun rises in. Mrs B says it’s karma for me) but he says his mate seems now just to state positions as if they’re self-evidently right and can’t stand up to intense scrutiny.
    – there really is white male privilege. It exists. But it’s not the one the SJWs think we have. It’s the privilege we have of knowing nothing less than performance will allow us to succeed, nor is there any explanation for failure outside our own limitations.

    It’s a kind of cultural benefits culture with all the same poverty traps and in the end it gives the biggest advantages to the non-recipients.

  7. Isn’t the problem that since the 1986 Education Act we’ve had the 2010 Equalities Act with its list of population segments with ‘protected characteristics’? This legislation made racial, sexual, gender and religious minorities above the ordinary law and invoked the situation where it’s now impossible to voice true conservative arguments without being accused of ‘hate’.

    All that’s happened is some students have picked this up and run with it, sweeping pro-Israel arguments into the pan at the same time. The whole culture of no-platforming has been implicitly sanctioned by the state so don’t be surprised if 18-21 year olds interpret what their elders have built in an extreme way.

  8. It always makes me wonder if the column writers here aren’t so busy they don’t have time to properly research the topic they write about.

    Johnson has announced precisely nothing, save for the fact that he has appointed a political grandee to a highly paid position which requires him to do no work as a reward for his political service.
    Government oversight bodies are all the same, when did you ever hear of one actually doing something? This will be no different, it notionally has the powers, but will never use them.

    Lets take a look at the man they’ve chosen to head it Sir Michael Barber. This is his Wikipedia entry:

    “Barber worked in the education department of the National Union of Teachers. As a member of the Labour Party, he was elected to the council of the London Borough of Hackney, becoming chair of the education committee. In 1987 he contested for Labour the seat of Henley-on-Thames, then held by Michael Heseltine.”

    A card carrying Labour member who served in the BLIar government. Does anyone reading this think that this man will stand up to the Stoodents Union or the Universities when they want to prevent Tommy Robinson from speaking on campus? It’ll just be the same excuse used over and over by both British and US universities that they cannot guarantee the students safety, and therefore need to cancel.

    This is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    • And yet another Labour appointment by a supposedly “Conservative” government. They are either stupid beyond belief or deliberately Blue New Labour.

      • I go for stupid in an upper class toff sort of way. Left to myself I’d probably be a “lefty” on many issues. I comment because for years I’ve seen increasingly intolerant left identity politics simple glide into a position of being the establishment. As far as I can see they have achieved this because they are a darn sight cleverer than the right who appear oblivious in a Berty Wooster sort of way. The most recent example being some public schoolboy antics meaning ministers going for comic opera infractions as the Labour party slid under the radar with far more egregious cases. No I pretty sure this Johnson has laid this banana skin for himself and his colleagues because the Labour bod seems a “good egg” ignoring altogether that he’ll be steeped in a politics far more embedded and nasty than anything in the Oxbridge debating societies. It would be comedy if the consequences weren’t so dire.

        • Ignorance is bliss? I truly believe that the current Conservative leadership is politically naïve and attempts to pander to the left will only end in disaster for this country. Free-speech lost, individual responsibility lost, bigger and bigger government control in all aspects of our lives, a diminution in the inherent wealth of the country as more and more is given away for less and less in return. The welfare state, including the “envy of the world”, is crippling the country and no-one in power has the courage to stop it.

    • I see your point. Is Johnson relying on the fact most people will take at face value, that someone has been appointed, so job done, without realising who has been appointed.

    • You are quite right.
      The situation you describe more generally is called regulatory capture, where vested interests (industry, unions) cosy up to the regulator to sway regulations in favour of their own special interests, but often against the public good. Think: Ofcom, Ofstead, FCA (replacing the equally useless FSA).
      As you point out, an overseer in name is meaningless. The proof, as always, is in the pudding.

  9. According to today’s Mail, “Mr Johnson said students at one university had created an extensive list of ‘trigger words’ and demanded any books containing them be removed
    from the library”
    .
    It sounds to me as if it’s the students who need to be brought under control, and those running the university need to explain succinctly to those concerned why they are not fit to be students.

    • Demanding any books containing “trigger words” be removed is surely a precursor to burning books. Why stop at just removal. If every demand they make is met, like a spoilt child, the demands will become ever more ludicrous until they rule completely or someone takes a firm hand to them.

      • Some universities don’t seem capable of doing anything about these ludicrous demands coming for the students’ representatives, they just seem to give in. In my view, they can not longer be considered to be places of learning, let alone universities. I’d be interested in seeing the list, if only for a laugh!

      • Since these institutions are in receipt of public money, they should expect Government intervention if they carry out extreme acts like banning books. Legally, a University’s remit is to uphold free speech.

      • Already there are calls for all pieces of art made from ivory to be destroyed, no matter its antiquity. Personally I would like to see all ivory poachers and their backers destroyed, but that would involve positive action. Mao’s Red Guards would be proud of the strident calls from the left (and it is generally the left) to destroy historical artefacts because they don’t meet current political dogma. It is only a matter of time before religious Renaissance art goes the same way.

        • They will be tearing down all the statues and monuments to our imperial past soon. I give it three years at most.

  10. I think it’s a bit rich claiming that we the government are advocates of free speech since they themselves have brought in so called hate crimes where by anyone can take offence and complain to the police even if what they heard was not even directed at them .

    • There was the same hypocrisy when the assorted underwhelming suits of the EU linked arms for the “Je Suis Charlie” photo opportunity. They claim to endorse free speech at the same time as they contrive bad law to control it.

      • That photo was stage and photoshopped. Thet weren’t really leading a parade. The were enclosed in a security cordon.

  11. The reality is that the policy of Jo Johnson is not anti censorship, it is effectively giving universities the greenlight to censor anything which they don’t want said.

    Johnson id the brother of proven liar Boris, and his wife Amelia Gentleman is a journalist for the Guardian. He could hardly be described as being on the right of what is an increasingly left wing party.

    I would like to remind readers of an incident approved of presumably by the great capitulator Theresa May when a university professor reported then Home secretary Justin Greening to the police for hate speech over a speech on immigration which the professor had not heard, had not been made, and had no prior knowledge of the content of.

    Given that hate speech is ‘what ever the victim perceives it to be’ and as a concept is banned in the US as contravening the right to freedom of speech in the constitution it stands to reason that including it as a mitigation is nothing more than censorship by definition. Worse than any of that is the fact that Blue Labour are prepared to have their own ministers barred from speaking at universities !

    There is a story from years ago of a students union which decided they would bar ‘racists’ from their union bar. By the time they had finished they had banned every single group apart from Labour and Communists in a predictable never ending lurch to find those who transgressed their wide definition.

  12. All laws restricting free speech, be the excuses for them obscenity, blasphemy, racism or homophobia,should be repealed. I remember this no platform bullying from my late seventies University days- the Public Meetings Act of 1908 should be updated and ruthlessly enforced. Those who break up meetings or shout down speakers should be expelled from University-if the administration refuses, replace it with people who will!

  13. a reasonable defense of a left wing education establishment.the irony is trying to create a level playing field is attacked,so entrenched they are.
    the negative narrative is the issue,just think if people read that the uk was doing very well a few years ago(grappled with massive debts and deficits ) would brexit have happened?,i think not.

  14. You make the mistake of using the same, subjective language of the left to make objective points – specifically your use of ‘hate’, ‘hatred’ and ‘hateful’.

    ‘Hate’ and its attendants, is an entirely subjective emotion which cannot be objectively defined – my ‘hatred’ of rap music does not make it objectively bad – only subjectively so, to me.

    This renders any legislation containing those words a nonsense – ditto any debate.

      • It isn’t a proper law if you don’t know whether you’re breaking it until somebody complains. The fact that our lawmakers are willing to make such laws which blatantly fail that simple test means that they wish this to be the situation so they can use the law as a political weapon.

        • Absolutely right.

          The basis of English Common law is that you have the unalienable right to do whatever you want to do, providing your action is not preventing another free Englishman doing whatever he/ she wants to do.

          Any dispute is resolved in a court and this then becomes law – common to all.

          It has been remarkably effective for centuries…it is only political legislation that has recently got in the way of it.

    • You’re right — the only meaningful concept I’ve come across in Law and including that word is the phrase : “incitation of hatred” … the key word in it being of course the incitation, as an act of deliberate public disorder, rather than the hatred itself.

  15. The test of the government’s resolve on allowing freedom of expression would be for Mrs May to lift the ban on Pamela Geller and Robert Spenser entering the UK.

  16. Freedom of speech is the freedom to criticise, the freedom to speak out about anything really, the freedom to offend. That hate speech law which allows the ‘victim’ to assess whether their feelings were ‘hurt’ by said speech must be struck down. It is ridiculous when the terms are not defined. It is an anti free speech law. We have a police state now in the UK regarding what can and can’t be said, especially for some weird reason online. That is simply wrong. So very, very, wrong.

    • I agree completely ! Freedom of speech cannot by definition have any caveats or exemptions – once certain subjects are not allowed to be discussed – or worse still made unlawful – we no longer have free speech. Who is deciding what we can and cannot say ?

      • I agree as I said before. We all know shouting fire in a crowded theatre or cinema is wrong. We all know threatening to kill or maim someone is wrong. But calling someone an idiot can be absolutely spot on in some circumstances.

  17. It would be amazing if student leaders did not have closed minds and therefore want this position to impose their views on others. It you hold tolerant views then what is the point in becoming a student leader? None.

  18. The key word in Johnson’s speech on fining universities for no platforming was ‘could.’ That is, universities who want to no platform a speaker or group could still do it as long as there is no dissenting opposition. A university which already has form for no platforming will know how to silence those dissenters. So, on it goes.
    I’m surprised that Johnson hasn’t been hammered on how long it’s taken him to speak on this matter. Safe spaces and no platforming have been going on for a long time – why bring it up now? Methinks the Tories are running out of ideas and are trying to dredge up support which, thankfully, they won’t get.

  19. Why don’t the so called Conservatives stop Burke from rolling in his grave by repealing Labour’s “hate speech” laws? (Read: “Britain’s Great Immigration Disaster” by G. Cooke Amazon and Kindle) and while the Blairite Tories congratulate themselves at their various wine bar soirees could someone spare a thought for a young girl called Jayda Fransen, now banged up in jail and being remorselessly prosecuted by Amber Rudd’s PC state for religiously aggravated harassment (in Kent) and soon to be on trial for using threatening and abusive language in Belfast. They will throw away the key, don’t doubt it, for the crime she committed in our new Orwellian Britain was to tell the truth about the Koran being the motivation for all Islamic violence and to demand an end to more Muslim immigration as a way of preventing the rapid Islamization of Britain. I speak as someone without any political affiliations other than a belief in the right of Jayden or anyone else to use free speech, as is her right as a freeborn citizen of this once proud nation, to say what they believe is true. Jadyn is not a fascist nor has she ever incited violence in her pursuit of the truth or in her opposition to a growing menace in our midst, yet she is about to be thrown in jail for the rest of her young life because she dared to speak that truth, which all our political cowards hide from, to their everlasting shame. Now desperate, she has said: ‘On behalf of myself and every citizen of Britain and for every man and women who has fought and died for us to have freedom of speech, I am appealing to you for your help.” I don’t expect anyone to give her it and when she is locked up because of British “hate speech” laws that would have shamed the Soviet Union you can all be sure of one thing, they will be coming for you, and all of us. They say it’s nearly 2018 but to some It feels more like 1933.

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