Head Master’s Assembly: Freedom of Speech

UK Law. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 states the following:

1) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2) The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

This is on the face of it rather a confusing, and apparently contradictory, set of statements. On the one hand, we all have the right to freedom of expression; on the other hand, there are certain restrictions on that right, and responsibilities associated with it.

Two things happened on the weekend which bring this whole messy area of life into sharp focus yet again. Firstly, guidance has recently been released from government to suggest that universities are breaking the law if they fail to uphold free speech on campus. It is a momentous paper, because it is the first time that the government has intervened in this area for over 30 years. It comes on the back of a series of episodes of what is now known as ‘no-platforming’ where speakers are refused permission to speak or enter debates at a university if that university does not approve of that speaker’s views. Indeed the National Union of Students has a formal ‘no-platforming’ policy which provides thought-provoking reading and highlights how difficult this area is. Recent years, however, have seen an Oxford college banning the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair on the grounds that it would “alienate students from other religions, and constitute a micro-aggression” and Sussex University’s free speech society (it is perhaps surprising that that even has to exist!) being told by the student union to vet UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge’s speech in case it violated their ‘safe space’ policy. 

Secondly, I was at Durham University this weekend where a fashion show put on by the students raised just over £150,000 for the Environmental Justice Foundation, a wonderful cause which seeks to enshrine environmental security as a basic human right. A great cause, and a great event; however, the local student newspaper was on the phone the following morning to the organiser, not to say well done and what a great achievement, but to seek comments on the comperes’ allegedly sexist and racist comments during the show. The comperes were overtly comic and self-deprecating; they were not as funny as they might have been, but were clearly offering tongue in cheek observations about the fact that they were three white, male comperes and no women or ethnic minorities were represented in their body. This now, apparently, is more important than raising £150,000 for a charity which will help those in need, regardless of background, skin colour or gender.

This is all happening at a time when the very role of universities themselves is being questioned. University education is no longer the preserve of the few, but the right of all and this has led to a fresh debate on its purpose. The history of that purpose is quite clear. In 1810, William von Humboldt, a German philosopher and diplomat, saw university as a “community of scholars and students engaged in a common search for truth”. Fifty years later, Cardinal Newman similarly said that it was about “teaching universal knowledge.” Even as late as 1963, Lord Robbins, an economist commissioned by the government of the time to draw up a report on the future of higher education, said that universities had four objectives: instruction in skills, promotion of the general powers of the mind, advancement of learning, and transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship. All three therefore, by inference, make the point that there is such a thing as universal truth, or common culture and common standards of citizenship. They all, also, infer that university is about enquiry, about study, about exploration towards that goal of universal truth.

The problem is that nowadays, however, we are more likely to seek soundbites than to take the time to try to uncover the truth. Soundbites are far easier; they capture the modern modes of communication far more effectively. Take the recent well-documented slogan adopted by Brexiteers that if we exit the European Union, the government would be able to spend £350 million pounds per week on the NHS. Scrutiny and debate around that figure was lost in the brilliance and ease of its communication. Was it true? Well, that was not the point; there was a population to persuade.

Now, happily, the government is seeking to re-open the formal debate around freedom of speech at our universities, places which for centuries have been held up as bastions of scholarship in search of universal truth. The debate is based upon a realisation that, by just simply taking positions and sticking by them, rather than opening up such positions to scrutiny, we create a more bigoted and less accepting society. As the Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said last week in response to the new guidance about no-platforming:

Holding open, challenging debates rather than silencing the views of those we don’t agree with helps to build tolerance and address prejudice and discrimination.

Our guidance makes clear that freedom of speech in higher education should be upheld at every opportunity and should only be limited where there are genuine safety concerns or it constitutes unlawful behaviour.

May I encourage you all to read the Human Rights Act? The interesting bits are not too long or challenging. It is an uplifting piece of law. It does not give the answers, but it does uphold an important cornerstone of our free society. With it, of course, come responsibilities – and I may speak about those later in the week.

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