Normally, I’m keen for this column to be widely read. This time, though, I hope not too widely. I’d be happy if it doesn’t catch the attention of Jacob Rees-Mogg or of government officials.
I’m due to give a talk to civil servants later this year. If anyone were to trawl through my social media they might discover the occasional criticism of government policy. And I might suffer the same fate as Dan Kaszeta.
An expert on chemical weapons, Kaszeta had been invited to address a government-organised conference on the issue last week. Then, he was disinvited because, as an official email put it, a “check on your social media has identified materials that criticised government officials and policy”.
Under secret rules drawn up by Rees-Mogg, civil servants must trawl through social media posts of all speakers at official events. Anyone critical of government policy can be banned. Not just Kaszeta, but a number of other speakers, too, have been disinvited for “criticism of government policy”.
This is a government that preens its advocacy of free speech. Its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, which became law this month, allows speakers to seek compensation if they are “no-platformed” and empowers the Office for Students (OfS) to fine infringing institutions. But what the law proclaims universities mustn’t do, the government itself is happy to.
The greatest chill on free speech in universities today comes not from students no-platforming speakers but from Prevent, the government anti-terror policy that has helped create a climate of self-censorship, placing certain topics, ideas and arguments off-limits. In 2019, the court of appeal ruled that Prevent guidance to universities was unlawful because it was so “unbalanced” against free speech.
Earlier this year, in a parliamentary debate, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, called for opponents of Prevent to be denied a “platform” to “ensure that… misrepresentations of Prevent are deterred”. A government whose own legislation demands that universities be sanctioned if they ban speakers with controversial views wants also to no-platform critics of its own policies.
It’s not just the government with a one-eyed view of free expression. Recent years have seen the emergence of organisations, such as Toby Young’s brainchild, the Free Speech Union (FSU), whose defence of free speech seems driven primarily by a hostility to “woke” policies. Last week, the FSU tweeted about Matthew Goodwin’s new book on the “woke elite” (it is hosting a panel discussion on it), and about Amazon’s “sanitising” of David Cronenberg’s 1988 cult classic film Dead Ringers in its remake. It was, however, silent on the Kaszeta ban.
The FSU’s 2020 report Threats to Academic Freedom in Britain mentions the impact of Prevent policies just once, and then only to castigate “leftists” for being more concerned about “threats from outside the university” than about the woke culture of censorship internally. And where the FSU has welcomed the new universities free speech law and dismissed criticisms, longstanding anti-censorship organisations, such as Index on Censorship and English PEN, have rightly warned of the dangers of state-imposed free expression.
Yet, if there is a selectiveness in the way anti-woke free speech champions look upon censorship, many of the issues they highlight are nevertheless important. There is growing support in sections of the left and on campuses for the suppression of unacceptable views.
The Higher Education Policy Institute found in a student survey last year that 79% thought “Students that feel threatened should always have their demands for safety respected” and more than a third believed academics should be sacked for teaching “material that heavily offends some students”. “Many people may be surprised, perhaps even unsettled”, the report observed, “by the greater keenness of students to limit what their peers and lecturers can say and do within the law”.
Last week, the OfS, as part of its regular reporting on the impact of Prevent guidance, published data on cancellations of university talks. Out of 31,545 speakers in the academic year 2021-22, 260 had their events cancelled. The reasons for doing so are unclear; the OfS data unfortunately does not show how many speakers were banned because their views were deemed unacceptable. Whatever the figure, it is small – less than 1%. This shouldn’t lead us to conclude, though, that there is no issue. Controversial speakers will inevitably be small in number, but attempts to stop them speaking often highlight a deeper problem, particularly the tendency to portray political and social disagreements as “hatred” or “bigotry”.
The most incendiary issue at the moment is that of trans rights. “Gender critical” feminists such as Kathleen Stock or Julie Bindel, who argue for the importance of sex-based rights and for the exclusion of transgender women from sex-based, women-only spaces, such as refuges or prisons, have faced calls for their meetings to be shut down.
Many of their critics argue that such individuals are not being censored because they have other platforms on which they are able to express their views, from newspaper columns to books. That is to miss the point. After all, Kaszeta can also avail himself of other platforms. That does not mean that what happened to him is not censorship.
At the same time, opponents of gender critical views should be equally free to express themselves. Last week, a tweet from Oxford University LGBTQ+ campaign calling for Stock’s invitation to speak at the Oxford Union to be rescinded was taken down by the student union on the grounds it might infringe the new law. The FSU crowed about it as a victory. It was, in fact, a blatant denial of free speech. The episode revealed both how state-imposed free speech can itself be a form of censorship and how little the FSU understands about the meaning of free expression.
There is an important debate about how to negotiate trans rights and women’s rights, and how best to ensure that both are respected. Shutting down one side of the debate as unacceptable will not settle the issues but merely make it more difficult to work out a fair solution.
For too many people today, on both the left and the anti-woke right, what matters about free speech depends upon which side of the culture wars they stand. It is an issue too important to be treated with such casual disdain.
Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist
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