A couple of weeks ago Jane Kelly on TCW pointed out a worrying tendency by police and prosecutors to overplay trivial sexual misdemeanours, with the result that (for example) a man who made a clumsy pass ends up with rapists and pederasts on the sex offenders’ register. For the moment, thank heavens, this is still exceptional. But on the good Jesuit principle of ‘give me the child and I will give you the man’, those in charge of our universities have been combining with a number of politicians in a rather alarming project to make this, or something like it, the norm in higher education.
Until 2016 universities’ attitude to sexual misbehaviour was largely pragmatic. On occasion they intervened in serious cases as part of their general efforts to promote student welfare, but generally the practice was to leave such matters up to the police. With less serious misbehaviour they might intervene where matters were particularly distressing, but as often as not did not get involved. There was much to be said for this approach. It dealt with egregious cases without allowing the welfare tail to wag the education dog, and reflected much of life outside the university, where people rightly learn to live with matters such as a hand on the knee or the occasional unwanted amorous advance without making an enormous fuss.
All this changed with a 2016 report from Universities UK called Changing the Culture (noted here on TCW). The flavour of this document, full of modish clichés and at times scarcely literate, could be seen from its demand for a commitment ‘to first recognise that harassment, hate crime and violence against women are serious problems affecting university students’ and to ‘foster a culture that mitigates (sic) against unacceptable behaviour’. Buried in its academic-bureaucratic jargon was a call for ‘zero tolerance’. Zero tolerance of what? Sexual harassment. Meaning? Almost anything, including whistling, sexual innuendo, sexual jokes and stories, looking someone up and down (I’m not joking) and spreading rumours about a person’s sex life. Coupled with this, there had to be a comprehensive bureaucratic system for dealing with all disclosures, and more done ‘to break down barriers to reporting’. Put it all together and you have a nightmare scenario: people encouraged to report all sorts of absolutely natural behaviour, a ban on any suggestion that some incidents are too trivial to take notice of (remember ‘zero tolerance’?), and a resulting accretion of power to anyone with an axe to grind or a score to settle.
Any hopes that this poisonous document might end in ignominious oblivion has now been dashed. The Guardian complained last week that universities had not jumped to attention and immediately adopted it in full: the somewhat lacklustre Labour MP Lucy Powell immediately echoed it, presumably seeking a soundbite, as did Tory Maria Miller, who unfortunately has swallowed rather more undigested feminism than is good for her. No doubt we will now see further pressure from politicians to cause universities to divert yet more resources from proper education to micromanaging student life and making sure that a due official record is made every time a cantankerous student is looked up and down.
At the same time, a Parliamentary human rights committee was reporting on another festering university sore: that of student unions ‘no-platforming’ and generally making it difficult for controversial (normally but not always Right-wing) speakers to address university societies, and universities occasionally preventing meetings for other reasons. This report admittedly said some of the right things. In particular it correctly blamed intolerance, excessive bureaucracy and regulatory complexity for creating difficulty. It also rightly condemned the practice of demanding prior sight of speeches before allowing them to be given (though whether this will prevent it happening in the future is unclear: student union officers are not known for their scrupulous regard for select committee recommendations).
But there is still room for some disquiet. The committee was unconvinced that there was a serious problem at all – an astonishingly complacent appraisal, as already pointed out by Tom Slater in Spiked. It cited the small number of speeches actually suppressed, and the response of 25 out of 33 student union officers they consulted to the effect that they had seen no problem of freedom of speech. The first is inconclusive: invitations will often not be made in the first place if a ban is possible. As for the second, it was of course the student union officers themselves who had been identified as causing the problem.
Two other points are worth throwing into the pot. One is that, while freedom of speech ‘within the law’ is protected by statute, university and student union speech codes often run counter to this. Newcastle, for example, claims to prohibit ‘transphobic propaganda’. Now, there is no offence of incitement to hatred of transgender people; furthermore, the prohibition could cover entirely good faith criticism of the whole transgender world view. Tellingly, the committee still regarded this prohibition as legitimate, apparently on the basis that it merely prohibited what was illegal already. One’s confidence in the report is not increased by matters like this.
The other was that, while piously calling for measures, including possible prosecution, against student disrupters of meetings (as with events at a King’s College London Libertarian Society meeting a few weeks ago), the options are rather limited. The only offences available are limited to generic public order ones. There is scope for improvement here. It is already an offence (under the Public Meeting Act 1908, originally an anti-suffragette measure) to act in a disorderly manner for the purpose of preventing the transaction of the business of any public meeting. There is much to be said for extending this to any lawful meeting held on university premises. If we are going to ask for the suppression of intimidatory tactics, as we should, the least we can do is give universities, police and prosecutors the tools they need for the job.