Most people agree that no one should face violence or imprisonment for the opinions they spout, no matter how boneheaded. However, coming up with an adequate understanding of what freedom of speech involves is a little more complicated. In fact, it is a quagmire of open-ended questions about power, context and ethics that raise a series of ‘yes it’s legal, but is it right?’ quandaries. To sidestep this is to pretend that we are all, together with Richard Dawkins, living in a permanent and preposterous debating-chamber where all ideas get equal exposure and where a grasp of logic and reason are the only advantages.
This week, Students’ Unions were the latest threat to this beautiful liberal utopia. "This is a big day in the fight for Free Speech on campus" roared Spiked Online, announcing the release of its Free Speech University Rankings.
My own Students’ Union, Goldsmiths, is ranked ‘red’ in their traffic light barometer and we are seen as "hostile to free speech and free expression". Our policies on supporting a woman's right to choose, our commitment to proactively tackling ‘lad culture’ and our opposition to providing platforms for fascists contribute to this low mark. The ranking comes in the same week that Spiked claimed that we ‘banned’ a comedian. She was in fact cancelled by the Comedy Society but don’t let that get in the way of three whole days of free publicity.
At the heart of this analysis is a misconception about what Students’ Unions are that needs addressing. As fundamentally membership organisations, policies are regularly debated and democratically decided. The venues we run are essentially private members clubs so why then shouldn’t students decide who is and who is not welcome? Why shouldn’t our members have a say on what is sold in our shop or what music is played in our nightclubs?
The greatest quality of Students’ Unions as campaigning organisations is their disposition to challenge the status quo, to go beyond talking about problems as students in the lecture theatre and to have a go tackling them. This means they will often be environments where the rights of minority groups are more advanced than in wider society, such as the policy of having gender neutral toilets and using correct gender pronouns, both derided by Spiked.
It’s no coincidence that the likes of Goldsmiths, SOAS, Edinburgh and LSE all get a disapproving red next to their names in the Spiked list. They are widely regarded as some of the most vocal politically. This doesn’t just go against the libertarian tastes of the people at Spiked. Since John Major’s government passed the 1994 Education Act, Students’ Unions come under the remit of the Charity Commission which makes it more easy for people who have politically lost an argument to weaponise charity law against campaigning unions and to argue that their work on social justice is ultra vires. But isn’t going against the grain, challenging power and social norms not the very epitome of what a commitment to free speech is supposed to be about?
The reductionist opportunism of Spiked’s interpretation of freedom of speech is no clearer than when Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s (EUSA) policy of inclusion of Trans students is cited as a supposed attack on dearly-held liberties. In what alternative reality is ‘requiring students to recognise the sexual identity of transgender students’ viewed as negative? Planet Spiked apparently.
My counterpart at EUSA, Eve Livingston, put it well: "The decisions of unions not to use their own time, resources and space giving a platform to messages which are fundamentally against their values is criticised widely as an attempt to shut down freedom of speech on campus. Because as J.S. Mill would say, 'to be truly free is to be able to listen to Robin Thicke, not on one’s own personal headphones, but from a centrally located speaker'.’
It is obvious that Spiked has a very particular utopia. It refers to a privileged ‘white man’s land’ where fascists are welcome on campus to intimidate non-white students and where anti-abortion activists are free to hand out pictures of foetuses and propaganda calling those who have had abortions baby-killers and making women generally feel uncomfortable in what is supposed to be their space of study.
If it wouldn’t make me the least popular person in the office tomorrow, I would invite Spiked writers to attend a Goldsmiths Students Assembly, the beating heart of Students’ Union policy making. Open disagreement is rife, continuous and encouraged. The same goes for our debating society, where in the past three weeks we have discussed Israel and Palestine, the Prophet Mohammed cartoons and The Sun’s Page 3.
Let’s also not forget what is omitted from this analysis. There is no criticism of universities bringing police on campus to spray students with CS gas for protesting peacefully and no reference to the injunctions served against them which meant, in some cases, that students could not even enter their own campuses. Isn’t that a bigger threat to freedom of speech in universities than well-intentioned policy against playing a song that boasts about blurring the lines of sexual consent?
If the Spiked writers paused for one second from their Pub Landlord routine on political correctness (or institutionalised politeness, as Stewart Lee calls it), they may even notice a genuine and real threat to freedom of speech on the horizon in the form of the latest Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill which embeds suspicion into our universities and turns academic staff into part-time spies for the state, trained to keep an eye out for anyone who says anything remotely radical. The government’s indicators of ‘radicalism’ or ‘extremism’ include "a need for identity, meaning and belonging" or "a desire for political or moral change". I think on those grounds you’d need a whole government department dealing with Goldsmiths alone.
It is clear how Spiked and their counterparts want to envision Students’ Unions: as never ending debating chambers, welcoming with open arms the bigots and fascists we campaign against and rejecting a collectivism that is uncomfortable with their idea of the status quo. Their version of free speech – that it is a neutral, black-and-white concept – is politically charged and discourages challenging authority. Not only is this intensely boring, but it’s dangerous, and should be rejected.
This article is part of the Education strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.
Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London