Two voices are missing from the free speech debate - students and professors

Updated: Feb 26

Over the past week, the Conservative government announced significant changes surrounding freedom of speech on university campuses.

There was a lot of reaction from the government itself, as well as students and universities' unions.

It is essential to clarify some of the elements of this freedom of speech change.

Students, academics and visiting speakers will be able to sue universities if they believe they are being de-platformed. There are also rumours of a "free speech champion" being employed by the government to investigate potential infringements of free speech in higher education and recommend redress.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, expressed his concerns about supposed trend of opinions being silenced and censored within these institutions, which is why he felt the need to intervene.

Meanwhile, the likes of Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students’ Vice President for Higher Education, suggested there was "no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus."

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As much as I believe there is a critical discussion to be had, the debate has missed two essential voices.

These voices of the students and professors.

Williamson highlighted an issue that deserves to be discussed, and I am happy it’s in the headlines. Yet, instead of moving aside to let students and professors have their say, he made sweeping statements without providing tangible evidence on the issue.

Instead, he decided to launch new guidelines without even consulting students and professors about how they feel about freedom of speech on campuses. Once again, student and professors' voices are not being heard on an issue that will affect them.

What I can do, which Williamson failed to do, is provide evidence of the so-called "crisis". There have been instances where people have either been sacked, expelled, de-platformed or physically intimated because of their views.

Selina Todd, Carl Benjamin, Amber Rudd and Jordan Peterson to name a few. The question is, does this allude to free speech crisis?

My answer is no.

You can count the number of times this has occurred on your hands. In doing so, it does not account for a crisis. The only thing that can be said is that this is a red herring.

Having said this, the fact that the NUS came out and said there is "no evidence" of any sort of crisis is exceedingly naïve and dangerous.

If there is no evidence of freedom of speech being in crisis, couldn’t you argue the examples above are evidence enough of free speech being restricted?

Universities have the ability to choice who is allowed to speak on campus, but in my opinion, they should only stop speakers from coming on campus if they have incited violence or hatred towards others.

The NUS outlined who is not allowed to speak on university grounds, such as Al-Muhajiroun; British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL). Groups and individuals should not have a platform, especially if they’ve promoted violence or hatred.

However, when it comes to people like Rudd or Peterson, universities should not be blocking speakers. The way certain speakers have been blocked, despite not having incited violence or hatred, are examples of free speech being restricted, going completely against Gyebi-Ababio’s argument.

If there is "no evidence" of free speech being restricted, why have students said they were expelled because of their views? If there is "no evidence" that a crisis, why did University of Kent Professor Matthew Goodwin say he faced harassment over his views? If this story was not true, why give Goodwin a platform to share his experience in the Daily Mail?

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What I am trying to say is that the government and the unions are as naïve as each other. The government over-scored the severity of the issue, while unions have done the complete opposite.

Students and professors should not be relying on the government and unions to speak for them. They do not fully know the reality of the issue. Students and professors should voice their opinions, not the government or unions.

There were times when restricting speech was the right decision, by not allowing the EDL on campuses. But, on some occasion’s universities made the wrong decision to restrict speech, if a speaker hadn’t incited violence or hatred.

However, what I will say to those who compared university campuses to authoritarian regimes, you are absurd. There were very few occasions where it has been wrongfully restricted.

But to suggest there is a crisis in free speech is a step too far. However, I am just one university student. There needs to be more attention on people like professors and me.

Students and professors make university what it is, and without them, a university would not be the same. Quite honestly, a university cannot exist without these people.

In 2018, the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee found signs of censorship at universities, but not on the level ‘media coverage suggested.’ This particular report concluded that ‘a much broader survey of students' opinion would be needed to assess levels of confidence amongst the student body as a whole.’

Students and professors all have voices and opinions about this issue, and as a student, I can no longer tolerate our viewpoints being expressed in newspapers such as The Telegraph, the Mail and The Guardian.

Student and professors' opinions don't deserve to be in newspapers as a reaction to this new law.

These opinions do not deserve to be on the side lines.

Students and professors’ opinions deserve to be at the centre of this debate.

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