Why free speech and open debate are essential in universities

Free speech is a hotly debated topic currently in the university sector. Dennis Hayes, Professor of Education at the University of Derby and Director of Academics For Academic Freedom, discusses why freedom of speech is censored and what can be done to tackle it.

The fourth annual Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) were released in February and, once again, they reveal a very depressing picture of the state of free speech in universities: “55 per cent of universities now actively censor speech, 39 per cent stifle speech through excessive regulation, and just six per cent are truly free, open places.”

This is a disturbing finding, because universities cannot really be said to be universities unless they allow unrestricted freedom of speech and open debate.

Why is freedom of speech important?

Freedom of speech is the foundation of freedom. Unless we express our beliefs and ideas and put them up for debate and challenge, we cannot know whether what we think is true or false. We cannot even begin to defend other values, such as equality or democracy, without exercising our freedom of speech. If we do not engage in debate we are no more than parrots uttering sounds that have no meaning.

Universities embody society’s commitment to freedom of speech in its fullest sense. Academics are paid not only to have opinions but to research and test those opinions. This is what ‘academic freedom’ means. If universities restrict freedom of speech they are attacking themselves. They are in danger of turning themselves into training establishments that teach ‘truths’ that cannot be challenged.

Why is freedom of speech censored?

We live in a therapeutic culture that is documented and explained in my co-authored book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. Therapeutic education emphasises emotion over the intellect and has produced what is often called the ‘Snowflake Generation’ of students. This characterisation of a generation is unfair because they are not snowflakes who can’t cope with ‘offensive’ or challenging ideas. It is universities and student unions that see students as vulnerable and unable to cope. They believe that the university must be transformed into a ‘safe space’ in which students are protected from emotional harm through exposure to ‘offensive’ ideas. This is why many restrictions and bans seem to be aimed at ‘protecting’ students. The reality is they are stunting their intellectual growth and potential.

What can universities do to defend freedom of speech?

Many of the restrictions universities place on freedom of speech are an epiphenomenon of committees. They are often ‘added to’ policies by academics and administrators going beyond any legal requirement and trying to regulate out ‘offensive’ ideas. The few universities that regularly get a ‘Green’ ranking for having a ‘hands off’ approach to freedom of speech are those with minimalist policies. With the agreement of the Vice-Chancellor and the Academic Registrar, the University of Derby began a review of all polices to remove regulations that went beyond the law and were ‘over enthusiastic’ about controlling speech. The work is ongoing but this year the university has achieved a ‘Green’ ranking for freedom of speech. A similar process could be undertaken in every university committed to freedom of speech and they could soon move out of red to an amber or even a green ranking. A start could be made by weeding out any statement that contains the word ‘offensive’.

Universities should also remind student unions that if they wish to use the label ‘University of X SU’ they must uphold the values of the university and not restrict freedom of speech. Student unions may claim to be independent organisations – legally they are – but if they ban, censor and ‘No Platform’ speakers and groups, they should not lay claim to a title borrowed from a distinguished institution whose values they reject.

If universities really believe that free speech is their foundational value, they must take it seriously and put in the hard work to ensure it is not accidently undermined by committees or by political activists amongst the academic staff or in student unions who happily undermine the university in pursuit of political goals.

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591891, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

Join the conversation

  • James Keith

    ‘Academic freedom and freedom of speech must be absolute – no ifs and no buts’

    The nature of a university is fundamentally lost when speech is curbed. With 55% of universities actively censoring free speech, surely this requires both students and staff to engage in debate and discussion? Instances, such as banning (or ‘no longer stocking’) The Sun, seem to demonstrate students being underestimated, in that they are restricted from being exposed to views, opinions and arguments. Individuals cannot even begin to ‘express our beliefs and ideas and put them up for debate and challenge’ (as stated in the blog) if views are censored on campus. I couldn’t agree more with the expression of unions upholding the values of the institution, should they wish to use ‘as students of X’. This is common to appeal to an authority when, effectively, they aren’t representing the views of the students let alone the institution.

    The way forward is definitely to debate. Restricting views impose this characterisation of snowflakes – as noted unfairly to the students. It is commonly encouraged, in fact, to prioritise ‘wellbeing’ as opposed to challenging and listening to conflicting arguments. The repercussions of censorship seem to leak into the classroom where academics and educators can no longer express their opinions, political stance or arguments against a point without fearing a consequence for ‘saying the wrong thing’. I think many students want the opposite, they want to listen and challenge but are encouraged to brandish badges of vulnerability to shut down views rather than challenge them. Let’s take freedom of speech seriously for what it is, no ifs and no buts.

  • Beverley Henshaw

    I agree with James, that higher education should be grounded in academic freedom as this vision of university fosters free and critical thought. University should be a place of challenge where we the students engage with difficult concepts and push the boundaries of learning. To be able to achieve this we need to have access to all knowledge however difficult or uncomfortable that may be. Failure to do this would result in exposing ourselves to a very narrow set of views and opinions. Instead of censoring free speech it’s time to strengthen our education and engage in debate and listen to all views no matter how challenging that may be. It’s by free speech and listening by all sides, that ideas move forward and problems are solved.
    The Union of Students need to prove that they are independent organisation, and instead of limiting student’s exposure to alternative views, should facilitate this and enable the university to be grounded in academic freedom. Therefore, strengthening our degrees and allowing all students exposure to all knowledge and views so they can analyse them and make their own judgements.
    Although the union of Students aligning with the university would be the ideal, there are opportunities for students to make things happen themselves. Let’s be autonomous learners and push the boundaries. For those wanting to engage and not knowing how, we are running a student debate every month where all views are welcome. The next is taking place on the 8th march at 2 pm in N103. Let’s strengthen the student body rather than diminish it!

  • Ysabel Klara

    Reading the words above, I found it startlingly difficult to believe that more than half of the universities actively censor free speech. It’s hard to stomach that reality. I had to look at the traffic-light system used to assess and rank each individual university and students’ union to explain to my baffled mind how the results were even determined. Curbing free speech could include a ban on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words! As mentioned by Dennis, perhaps the university and student unions have it in their interests to create a ‘safe space’ to protect the students. Why protect students who are ultimately going to leave the university and venture into ‘unsafe’ zones? I don’t see the use of providing a temporary safe haven for learners who should be using their time in universities, more so than ever, to understand different behaviours and the reasonings behind a kaleidoscope of expressive ideas, favourable or unfavourable. Mental resilience is needed to survive in this world, and allowing free speech and open debates in universities can help to breed that trait. A domestic animal should be trained and exposed to imminent danger before being sent out to live in the wilderness, so as to increase its chances of survival. What James and Bev have said also reminds me of a line from Phaedo, “There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.”

  • Neetish Madan

    Freedom of speech serves better, by far, than the prospect of being without it. Other than subject knowledge, universities’ best offer to be given and taken is the platform to be tried and tested.

  • ProfDennisHayes

    Trying to censor or ban a speaker using a formal ‘No Platform’ policy, or simply because you dislike their views, is an obvious violation of the principle of freedom of speech. It does not matter whether the speaker is eventually banned, uninvited, drops out or finds a way to speak off campus. The damage to freedom of speech is done.

    Critics of the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) sometimes claim that instances of ‘no platforming’ of speakers are rare. In a reply* to one of these critics, Tom Slater, spiked’s Deputy Editor and the coordinator of the FSUR, explained how these policies actually work: ‘…the precise point of no platform policies – which outlaw those who are deemed to be extreme speakers, and which are held by 37 per cent of students’ unions – is that they are pre-emptive. Any speaker or group or ideology on the blacklist would never make it past stage one of winning approval. There’s no point bothering.’

    Not only students but academics can’t be bothered. They self-censor and simply don’t invite controversial speakers.

    For the same reason it is important to weed out any university policy that seeks to limit freedom of speech. The policies of universities are not irrelevant or idle. Such a suggestion would come as a surprise to HR departments, who spend a lot of time developing them. They are far from idle. They frame the intellectual climate of the university and if they could in anyway be used at some time to restrict freedom of speech they can rightly be said to chill that freedom. I am proud of the fact that the University of Derby is constantly vigilant about this possibility.

    * Read Tom Slater’s reply here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/no-platform-epidemic-not-right-wing-fantasy

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