Universities: Freedom of Speech

Motion to Take Note
1.07 pm
Moved by Baroness Deech

That this House takes note of the protection of freedom of speech in universities.

2.22 pm
Lord Skidelsky (CB): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for making possible this debate. I shall draw your Lordships’ attention to two threats to free speech on the campus. In four minutes I have time for only two threats, but I think that they cover most of the ground.

The first threat comes from the Government. The state has a duty to protect its citizens from terrorism. The Government have conceived of that duty in part as preventing university students from being what they call “radicalised”. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 requires universities to,

“prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism”.

This is construed as part of their duty to “care” for “vulnerable” students. Universities are required to assess the risks of students being drawn into terrorism and extremism, and to train staff how to assess those risks and “challenge extremist ideas”. Universities must seek government guidance on which speakers to allow on campus. In this guidance terrorism and extremism are frequently conflated, as the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Lester, have pointed out, although very occasionally the drafters remember that one can hold extremist views without being a terrorist.

I turn to the second threat. The National Union of Students has opposed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act on the grounds that it will lead to mass campus surveillance and the criminalisation of Muslims and black people. The universities should be kept as “open democratic spaces”. All this would carry more conviction if student bodies were not themselves a big threat to free speech on the campus. Student unions in many universities run “no platform” policies for speakers whose views they consider reprehensible, even though they are legal. For the NUS—and this is the key—keeping students “safe” is paramount. Bristol University Students’ Union runs a “safe space” policy aimed at ensuring students’ safety from harassment. However, keeping students safe turns out to include keeping them “safe from radicalisation”. So, despite the verbal skirmishes, the Government and students are quite united on the need to protect students from harmful ideas, differing only slightly in their definition of what they regard as harmful.

I must come clean: I hate the doublespeak that runs through the public pronouncements that I have read on this topic. How Orwell would have shuddered. The facts are pretty clear: universities have a statutory duty to uphold free speech and are bound by the Public Order Act to ban incitement to racial and religious hatred. So they have a duty to uphold free speech within the law. Similarly, the security forces have a duty to keep the country safe from terrorism wherever it sprouts—prevention does not stop or continue on the campus. What I deny is that university students are an especially vulnerable species needing special protection against being abused or radicalised. Students are adults: they can vote, fight and die for their country, drive, drink alcohol and so on. Why should they be treated as adults in one branch of life and as children in another?

In particular, I think it is an abuse of thought and language to extend the good liberal notion of protecting people against harms to the decidedly unliberal notion of protecting them against harmful ideas.