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Andrew Tettenborn: At last, a university head who stands up for free speech


It takes a thick skin to protect free speech in universities these days. Most administrations haven’t got it. Witness frequent speech codes attempting to ban, for example, any sexist or homophobic speech (bans of doubtful legality, but that’s another story), and the way most colleges roll over at any complaint mentioning ‘hate speech’ and immediately make life difficult for the speaker. It’s all too predictable that Edinburgh University is now investigating a law student for ‘hate crime’ after a self-styled ‘feminist and womanist’ fellow-student who’d never met him reported as Islamophobic his Facebook post welcoming a successful attack on ISIS. (To his credit, he’s instructed lawyers and isn’t going down without a fight. We wish him luck.)

In sharp contrast to this study in appeasement, there was some good news from Oxford. Gay students complained to the University that some dons openly disapproved of homosexuality on moral grounds. They got a tart response from the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson. Her job wasn’t to make them comfortable; dons were free like anyone else to express opinions; and if students disagreed with what they heard they should argue and not complain.

At this, pandemonium broke loose. The Vice-Chancellor was accused by the students and others of condoning hate, trashing equality, and making gay students unwelcome, and told to apologise. So far she has rightly stood her ground. But the fact that this debacle took place tells us a good deal about what is wrong in academia.

For one thing, it’s worrying how far these protesters just don’t get freedom as we know it. Think for a moment. They are not complaining that the Vice-Chancellor has done anything bad, or even that she has advocated doing something bad. Their complaint lies at two removes: that she has had the temerity to defend a third party’s right to say something they see as bad, despite not agreeing with it herself. The Taliban would, one suspects, be immensely impressed by these zealots’ logic, even if not by their cause.

For another, despite being the cream of UK intellectuals, they curiously confuse rational debate and raw emotion. The difference is clear. On one side is reasoned argument that homosexual relations are immoral, or inconsistent with the reasons why sexuality exists, reflecting the principle ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’; on the other, skinhead-style gut hatred of queers. But this distinction goes entirely unnoticed by the Oxford students’ LGBT+ society, which referred to any view except complete moral equivalence of all sexual relations simply as ‘bigotry’ and went so far as to say that ‘homophobia is not an opinion’; so too an earnest New Statesman op-ed writer, for whom any contrary view amounted to an assertion that gay people ‘don’t deserve to exist’.

Third, there is a depressingly limited view of higher education. Forget the university as a place for intellectual dispute. Professors mark exams, don’t you know, and expecting students to argue with them is quite unfair because of the ‘power dynamics’ involved. Argument must be strictly limited to next week’s essay; elsewhere, students need a safe space free of challenges to beliefs or lifestyle. As one particularly silly commentator, herself a (non-Oxford) academic, put it: ‘Why should a student who is paying £9,000 a year in fees have to waste their time having arguments with somebody about whether homophobia is wrong?’ Or, put another way, ‘My fees are the commercial price of an educational add-on to my schooling that will get me a good job; that’s what I am paying for, and you’d better not distract me from it by nonsense about intellectual communities, or getting me to take part in argument about anything else.’ Insofar as the Vice-Chancellor resists this kind of philistinism, she deserves our support. Of course, this could mean that some kinds of people are deterred from going to university. But seeing what is at stake, this is something one suspects she, and probably most TCW readers, can live with.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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