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Boris Johnson’s Government Moves to Protect Campus Free Speech

Maughan Library at King’s College London. (tupungato/Getty Images)
A new proposal would step up enforcement of laws safeguarding the free exchange of ideas at British universities.

On Tuesday, U.K. education secretary Gavin Williamson released a policy paper outlining the government’s plans to require universities to protect the free speech of staff, students, and visiting speakers in accordance with existing British law.

“There are some in our society who prioritize ‘emotional safety’ over free speech, or who equate speech with violence,” the paper reads. “This is both misguided and dangerous. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the case powerfully: not only do such attitudes suppress speech, they make it harder to draw a clear line against violence.”

The government’s plans include the appointment of a free-speech director to investigate potential violations of the law and the imposition of fines on student unions found guilty of such violations. As might have been predicted, campus activists and bureaucrats have reacted angrily. The Russell Group of leading British universities complained that the government’s proposals would compromise their “institutional autonomy,” while the National Union of Students (NUS) said there is “no evidence” that a free-speech crisis exists on British campuses. The vice president of the NUS complained to the Times of London that the government was “attacking” universities at a time when it “would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need.”

But in fact, the government’s policy is informed by methodologically rigorous, independent research. In 2019, Policy Exchange, the prominent British think tank, released a report by political scientists Eric Kaufmann and Remi Adekoya and political philosopher Thomas Simpson examining censorship and self-censorship on U.K. campuses. Using YouGov survey data, the authors found that 50 percent of right-leaning academics and 38 percent of left-leaning academics in the humanities and social sciences said they’d self-censored. They also examined “the willingness to sit with someone of an opposing view at lunch, which performs an important social role in cementing collegiality and anchoring a pleasant work environment,” and found disturbing evidence of “social avoidance”:

While 86% of those surveyed would be comfortable sitting next to a Remain supporter, this falls to 54% for sitting next to a Leave supporter but reaches just 37% for lunching with someone who opposes admitting trans-women to women’s refuge centres. Even a majority of Leave supporters would not be comfortable doing so. Gender-critical scholars may thereby face more discrimination than conservatives and Leavers.

The report concludes that this is especially concerning since “collegiality is an important part of academic wellness, and social ostracism represents an example of Mill’s ‘despotism of custom’ in action.”

The good news is that, despite suggestions to the contrary, the government does have legal standing to take the steps Williamson’s proposal outlines. Two laws passed by Parliament in the 1980s require that institutes of higher education “take steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.” Williamson’s plan would merely create the infrastructure necessary to properly enforce this requirement.

When individual lives, careers, and reputations are being ruined by illiberal, publicly funded institutions, and the government has the mechanisms to hold those institutions to account, then it is right to do so.

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