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The university ‘free speech crisis’ has been a rightwing myth for 50 years

The idea that there is a free speech “crisis” at British universities has gained considerable currency over the last decade. “No platforming”, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” have been held up by conservatives, libertarians and “classic liberals” as the holy trinity of campus censorship methods – supposed threats to free speech and academic freedom.

There is plenty of sympathy for this view in the Conservative party. During the 2019 election campaign, it pledged to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. Now that the Tories have been re-elected, they are starting to make noises: in the Times earlier this month, the education secretary Gavin Williamson declared that if universities didn’t take action to protect freedom of speech on campus, the government would do so itself.
As Nesrine Malik and William Davies have both described, the myth of a free speech “crisis” has been spread by the right as part of a broader culture war against “political correctness”, “wokeness” and “identity politics”. In an era when conservatives and the populist right have been in the ascendancy, the culture war has descended on universities, because they are a significant battleground against racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia (as well as traditional class hierarchies).
But the calls for government intervention to protect freedom of speech on campus have a much longer history. As the student movement raged in Britain in the late 1960s, there were protests against several controversial speakers, such as Enoch Powell and the rightwing MP Patrick Wall, which led to disruptions at a number of universities. There were calls from the conservative media and politicians to censure students for their protests. An editorial in the Times in May 1968 decried “the silencing of opponents by mob action” and lamented the university for becoming “the breeding ground for … mindless opposition”.

In 1974, the National Union of Students implemented the policy of “no platform” for racists and fascists. By the mid-1980s, some rightwing students were seeking to overturn it and some on the left to extend it within individual student unions to oppose sexists, homophobes and rightwing politicians (especially those with hardline positions on immigration and support for apartheid South Africa). When these politicians went on speaking tours to universities, they were met with fierce opposition from students. John Carlisle was physically assaulted at Bradford University in February 1986; later that year, Enoch Powell had a ham sandwich thrown at him at Bristol University, as students stormed the stage.

Intense media attention and statements from politicians gave the impression that free speech was under attack at universities. Education secretary Sir Keith Joseph called protesting students “the new barbarians”. In response to these protests, the Thatcher government inserted clauses to protect free speech on campus into the Education (No 2) Act 1986, calling for “reasonable steps” to be taken to ensure freedom of speech by university administrations.
The effects of this were soon seen when, after the University of Liverpool prevented two South African diplomats from speaking in 1988 and again in 1989, conservative students took the university to court for violating the 1986 act. The high court eventually found the university was technically flawed in taking into account public order issues when banning the diplomats from speaking.

Since this decision, there has been an ever-present contest over the right of student unions to “no platform” controversial speakers, such as the British National party or the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the legal obligations of the university to allow free expression and debate. Throughout the 2000s, the BNP portrayed themselves as defenders of free speech against “political correctness” and used this to gain a presence at several universities, as well as generate publicity through university debates.

In the last few years, the push by some student unions to “no platform” speakers deemed to be transphobic has helped thrust the topic back into the media spotlight. Media and political attention has focused on “snowflake” students allegedly shutting down debate – even though parliament’s 2018 Joint Committee on Human Rights report on the topic stated it “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested”. The right has taken a decades-old trope of the overzealous student and used it to great effect, while adapting it for the 21st century: where there were once warnings about the threat of the violent student radical, now there are fears about online mobs using social media to pressure universities to cancel events or disinvite speakers.
The myth of the “free speech crisis” cannot be divorced from the wider rise of the global far right. So we should be wary of calls by Boris Johnson, or any other leaders, for government intervention to “protect” free speech at universities and colleges. This is really just posturing – a way to further the culture war and demonise “woke” students.

The last half-century has shown that when it expresses concerns over “free speech”, the right is trying to weaponise it to its own advantage, especially when it feels it is being challenged – such as during the radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s or the turbulent mid-1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Freedom of speech on campus in these instances, as Guardian columnist Dawn Foster has written, often masquerades a desire for freedom from criticism.

But the university cannot be a place where racism and fascism – as well as sexism, homophobia and transphobia – are allowed to be expressed. Tactics such as “no platforming” and the creation of “safe spaces” are necessary for students and activists because the threats that led to “no platforming” in the 1970s remain. Government action that waters down the ability to combat these threats must be resisted.