If you were a visitor from Mars arriving in the UK today, you could be excused for believing that there was something progressive about the UK government legislating to enable no-platformed academics, students or visiting speakers to sue universities for compensation where they feel they have suffered because of free speech infringements.
If, however, you aren’t from Mars, you have no excuse.
Why? Because this comes from a government that does not uphold free speech as a universal political principle upon which our democratic freedom rests. This is a government who intends, along with this legislation, to appoint a ‘Free Speech Champion’ with the power to impose fines on universities and students’ unions that ‘restrict speech unlawfully’ and ‘order redress if individuals have been dismissed or demoted for their views’.
The phrase ‘restrict speech unlawfully’ is a reminder and a pointer, especially to our visitor from Mars, that there has been a legal duty on universities to uphold free speech since the 1980s. Moreover, today, this is based upon extensive legal restrictions on speech – particularly hate speech – which universities have over-interpreted and routinely invoked as the legal and moral basis for the campus censorship the government now wants to reign in.
If the government was so zealous in its defence of free speech on campuses, why has it not rescinded the hate-speech legislation that makes cancelling speakers lawful on campuses?
It’s worth reminding ourselves how ambiguous and broad hate-speech legislation actually is. Hate crime laws are defined as ‘any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim, or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic’. You could not perfect a better or broader authoritarian blunt stick upon which state authorities have gained special licence to criminalise any dissenting and unorthodox speech in British society. Examples and cases of university and police clampdowns have proliferated over the years.
But it is not simply the slowness or reluctance of the government to revoke these laws that is at issue. Their reluctance is borne from their own prejudice, about their fears of the apparent dangers unfettered free speech represents in society. So, while the government talks big about legally-enforced compensation for those cancelled or censored at universities, its culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, along with the rest of the government has been actively engaged in seeking to force the online tech giants to crack down even harder on hate speech and ‘harmful’ content online. Even anti-woke backbenchers are less than forthright in demanding the full abolition of hate-speech laws.
This is revealing. It shows that what really motivates the government’s ‘war’ against ‘hate speech’ is not a defence of free speech, but their fear of unfettered free speech in society.
Like the university and student censors, they are equally full of fear and loathing of what the rest of us might get up to if allowed to think and speak for ourselves, or if exposed to views we do not like or agree with.
The idea that it’s possible to fine your way to free speech is nonsense. That there is a crisis of free speech in universities in the UK and the USA, specifically, is a very real problem and threat. The problem lies in the culture within student politics and academia and government itself.
But government intervention in the form of new laws threatens to undermine more than the independence of universities and students’ unions. This legal intervention will do nothing to address the root causes of the crisis other than to establish the right of the state to decide what free speech is permissible or not.
Free speech is not, and has never been, a legal privilege. It is a universal liberty applicable to all without exception. It is indivisible. This is not just about the right to hate but the right to listen (or not) and judge for ourselves. Once that freedom is infringed, the question is always: who decides where to draw the line?
This legislation firmly establishes that the state will draw that line. Under a government which is itself fearful of free speech this will only give the state more authoritarian means to enforce its version of what is acceptable. This is not a defence of, but a grave threat, to free speech on campuses.
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