How free should free speech be?

31 Dec

In the run-up to the Christmas of 2017, a flaming row broke out at Oxford University when 58 academics criticised a professor for arguing that Britain’s imperial history was not entirely shameful.    Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, was slated by his colleagues and students after writing an article in The Times calling for a more nuanced appraisal of colonial times.

Oxford University defended the professor, denounced by students and the academics as “bigoted” because he wrote that if people believe in “strident anti-colonialist” it could lead to a feeling of guilt that makes the public “vulnerable to wilful manipulation”.

Common Ground, a race rights group based in Oxford, described the article as “racist” and accused Professor Biggar of “whitewashing” the British Empire. A letter on the group’s website said: “We stand in solidarity” with those who have criticised Professor Biggar following his article headlined “Our colonial history and guilt over empire”. The academic “implies that colonised societies had no political order prior to colonisation, invoking a racist, hackneyed and fictional trope about the nature of pre-colonial societies”.

Professor Biggar’s column was prompted by criticism of an article by Bruce Gilley, a political scientist at Portland State University, who argued that it was time to question the orthodox view that western colonialism “has a bad name”. Professor Biggar concluded: “Bruce Gilley’s case for colonialism calls for us British to moderate our post-imperial guilt.”

Later, The Times published a letter signed by more than 80 academics from around the world defending the journal that published Mr Gilley’s article.  They expressed alarm about the “rising tide of intolerance on university campuses and within the academic profession”.

The academics suggested that scholarly journals should “publish any work — however controversial”, provided that it “merits exposure and debate”.

On 26 December 2017, Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, warned higher education institutions, in a speech at the Limmud Festival in Birmingham – a festival of Jewish learning, of the dangers of shielding students from views that differ from their own through “safe spaces” and “no-platforming”.  From April 2018, the newly established Office for Students will have the power to fine or deregister universities that fail to uphold free speech.

“Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged,” Mr Johnson said. “In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.

“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions. That is why the new regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), will go even further to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.”

The Department for Education has proposed that, as a condition of registration to the OfS, universities benefiting from public money must show that their governance is consistent with the principle of free speech. The OfS will also be able to hold universities to account and have a range of measures if freedom of speech is not upheld, including formal sanctions such as monetary penalties or deregistration from the regulator.

However, Mr Johnson said that free speech must not be used as a smokescreen by those who wish to limit the rights of others. Universities had to ensure that students were not exposed to hatred or discrimination such as racism or antisemitism. “A racist or anti-Semitic environment was an illiberal one that is completely in opposition to the liberal tradition of our universities,” he said.

In recent times, several speakers, including Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, and Germaine Greer, the writer and feminist, were told that they were not welcome by groups of students because of their views on transgender issues.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities are absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech and will not allow legitimate speech to be stifled.

“There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities take these responsibilities very seriously. They have a duty, not only to secure freedom of speech, but also to protect the safety of students and staff……

“It is important that universities do not become discussion-free zones. They must continue to be places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law, and their views challenged openly.”

Jo Johnson is right in intervening in this controversy to neutralise the widespread disinclination in education – particularly at university level – for academics and students to listen to contentious ideas.   Trevor Phillips, a leading race relations campaigner, defended Professor Biggar stating in a letter to The Times on 27 December 2017 that the empire made Britain a diverse and multiracial nation.

He warned Professor Biggar’s critics to watch their language. “Students’ misreading of history is entirely understandable if they are instructed by the academics who criticise Nigel Biggar for asking ‘the wrong questions, using the wrong terms’, an attack line of which Joseph Stalin would have been proud.”

Phillips goes on to add that he spent the first three years of his life under a colonial state of emergency in British Guiana with soldiers on the streets.  “Relatives and family friends were jailed and charged with sedition,” he added.  He had no reason to defend colonialism.   However, it was important that the 58 academics “constantly reappraise its consequences…..It is a fact that we are only here because you were there,” he concludes.

The guidelines of the National Union of Students (NUS) include advice that their affiliate unions should “balance freedom of speech and freedom from harm”.  Speakers who have been either banned under this policy are not only genuine extremists such as the British National Party and the proscribed Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun but also the advocates of openness and liberal values, such as Tatchell – the human rights campaigner, Greer – writer and feminist, and Julie Bindel – the English writer, feminist and co-founded of the law-reform group, Justice for Women.

Even an official of the Hope-not-Hate anti-racism group fell foul of the NUS’s policy on the preposterous grounds that he was “Islamophobic”.

In a free society, we need to comprehend that the most powerful way in which one can fight a poisonous, destructive idea is with a medicinal, powerful and anti-viral (other) idea.   I recall way back when I was a young undergraduate at Calcutta University witnessing a friend of mine who was physically lambasted because he argued the toss against Communism with fellow students.  While he was measuring himself in the gutter, he told his tormentors that they had battered and bruised him but lost the argument.

Let us remind ourselves of what Voltaire, the prolific French writer and philosopher, said way back in the eighteenth century: “I may disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” This will need to be reconciled with the requirements of the Prevent Strategy.   Will Carleton, the American writer who lived 100 years after Voltaire, said: “Boys flying kites haul in their white winged birds.  You can’t do that when you are flying words.  Careful with fire, is good advice, we know.  Careful with words is ten times doubly so.”

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