Independent: There is no free speech crisis in our universities

This article was first published in The Independent.

Before I left home for university last year, I was led to believe that I was in for the toughest three years of my life. “Free speech is a fantasy on university campuses,” I was solemnly assured. As a neoliberal conservative student of Sociology, the right-leaning media led me to expect militant left-wing mobs watching my every move and a furious thought-police ready to pounce upon the slightest misstep. I knew what I was up against, and I was prepared to face the almighty consequences of political self-expression. In reality, my student experience was totally different.

Even as a Tory, I can see clearly that the vast majority of this rhetoric is stemming from the right. This is not a deranged cry from the fringe, but a mainstream perspective; people truly believe that students’ rights are somehow weaker than everyone else’s, to the point that the government created the Office for Students with the express purpose of safeguarding free speech on campus.

But there is no free speech crisis in our universities, however much some might like there to be. It is certainly true that left-leaning people tend to dominate student unions, the bodies that essentially govern most campus activity. This is no surprise, given that my generation is overwhelmingly left-leaning as a whole. Nor should it be a problem.

Even if a sudden wave of authoritarian fury were to consume students unions, such that they took it upon themselves to crack down on edgy takes, they would find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Banning groups on the basis of their political views would, in many cases, breach the free speech legislation in England and Wales. In other words, no platforming is virtually illegal. There is little to no wiggle room for campus authorities to interfere in the activities of independent student societies where free speech is at stake, and quite rightly so.

Instances of attempted censorship or no-platforming are exceedingly rare, and when they do occur, they invariably produce an onslaught of headlines, triggering a colossal backlash and almost always culminating in those involved completely reversing their stance. The threat of censorship in the everyday life of a student has been cataclysmically overblown by sensationalist media coverage.

Concerns of a “free speech crisis” seem to be based on measures put in place by student unions intended to discourage hate speech. The Spiked Free Speech University Rankings, for example, examine unions’ by-laws, uncovering bans on offences such as “transphobic speech”, using this as evidence that students’ legitimate opinions are being unduly suppressed. The LSE, where I study, is given an “amber” rating, meaning “excessive regulation”. Whatever the by-laws say, this isn’t the reality of student life.

Any student will tell you that university unions are hotbeds of bureaucracy. They tend to be made up of wannabe quangocrats and they breach the outer limits of extreme inefficiency. It is hardly surprising, then, that many of their rules are vague to the point of being unenforceable, and are largely ignored.

Union by-laws are not laws. There isn’t a “thought police” patrolling university buildings, brandishing copies of the by-laws and carting people off if they say the wrong thing. Nonetheless, it is still a mainstream view among right-leaning students that they are persecuted on campus.

One might gently suggest that if these students truly are encountering difficulty in expressing themselves at university and apparently suffering adverse consequences when they do so, it might have rather more to do with their personality and manner of self-presentation than their politics. There are certainly some left-wing snowflakes, but the vast majority seem to be planted on the right.

Campus discourse is vibrant and positive. Protests are frequent. Debates are lively. There is a thrilling level of political engagement among students. All of this is thanks to the thriving culture of free speech and open debate on our university campuses.

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