Number of Rejected University Speakers Has ‘Sharply Increased,’ Raising Free Speech Concerns

By Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.
July 14, 2022 Updated: July 14, 2022

Almost 200 speaker requests or events were rejected by English universities or other higher education institutions in 2020–2021, new figures show, raising fears of rising incidents of cancel culture.

“One person stopped from speaking is one too many,” said Prof. Dennis Hayes, president of Academics for Academics Freedom (AFAF) told The Epoch Times by email. One world-renowned artist who was cancelled by the mob said that she believed many “want an easy life so capitulate to their demands.”

The numbers, published by the Office for Students (OfS), show that out of 19,407 external speaker requests or events, 193 were rejected in 2020–2021, compared with 94 in 2019–2020, 141 in 2018–2019, and 53 in 2017–2018. Some 632 events went ahead subject to conditions.

Sharply Increased

Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive at the OfS, said this data show that more than 99 percent of events and speaker requests were approved in 2020–2021 and suggests that, in general, “universities and colleges remain places where debate and the sharing of ideas can thrive.”

“However, it is the case that the number and proportion of rejections sharply increased in 2020/21, with almost 200 speakers or events rejected,” said Lapworth.

Some 47 cases were formally referred to external Prevent agencies, the OfS report also found. The Prevent duty aims to safeguard people from being drawn into terrorism.

“The OfS data [are] interesting, they do not follow up on non-prevent cases. There might be a lot of subjectivity in these cases, it is hard to know without having details of each case,” added Hayes.

‘Doesn’t Really Surprise Me’

The British conceptual and data artist Rachel Ara told The Epoch Times that in 2019 she had her lecture canceled at Oxford Brookes University after students from the LGBTQ+ society complained because she draws a distinction between biological sex and gender identity. Ara said that she had liked one tweet by Allison Bailey, the barrister suing the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall.

“It doesn’t really surprise me,” she told The Epoch Times, about the rise of rejected speakers. Ara’s work is widely acclaimed and has been exhibited in the Victoria and Albert museum, Whitechapel Gallery, the Barbican, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea, and the Mak in Vienna.

“There are a few students that are very vocal and put a lot of pressure on the institutions not to platform certain people. Unfortunately, the staff seem to seriously be lacking any backbone and want an easy life so capitulate to their demands. They also know their jobs may be threatened,” added the former V&A resident artist.

“It can be a relatively organised process like in my case, where a focused group will start tweeting certain student groups to mobilise them to protest against some of the speakers. I’m sure half the time they’ve no idea why. There’s little critical analysis, they’re just told an unsuitable person is going to be platformed and we must stop them at all costs they create a mini hysteria,” said Ara.

At the time, Oxford Brookes University told the Telegraph that Ara’s talk had been “postponed” in 2019 because it had “not been booked through the usual process for confirming external speakers,” adding, “Having worked through this process, the talk will now go ahead online next month.”

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is a proposed Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that would impose requirements for universities and students’ unions to protect freedom of speech. It is currently at the Committee stage at the House of Lords.

At the time, the government said that the Bill comes in light of examples of a “chilling effect” on students, staff, and invited speakers feeling unable to speak out. In one incident, Bristol Middle East Forum was charged almost £500 in security costs to invite the Israeli Ambassador to speak at an event. The government has since said there is a need for legislation “with teeth” that’ll safeguard free speech at university campuses.

The OfS said that a new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will sit on its board, and the government has said “universities, colleges, and students’ unions that breach (the new) duties may face sanctions, including fines.”

Lapworth said universities are required to take steps to “secure freedom of speech within the law” and that this applies to their arrangements for external speakers, as well as to discussion and debate in lecture and seminar rooms or across academic communities.

“Topics which some may find offensive or controversial must be open to free debate in those contexts too,” she said.

She said the OfS will continue to regulate universities to ensure they are meeting their obligations, and that the body is “willing to intervene where we have concerns this may not be the case in this fundamentally important area.”

Less Supportive of Free Expression

In June, the Higher Education Policy Institute polled 1,000 full-time undergraduates on free speech issues, concluding that students are significantly less supportive of free expression than they were just a few years ago.

The new results showed a solid increase from 2016 with things seemingly swinging “too far in one direction,” with students wanting greater restrictions to be imposed on things that have tended to be considered normal in the past.

At the time, Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of “Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities” described the driving force behind cancel culture as “left modernism,” which he says is the contemporary hegemonic ideology in elite institutions.

“The whole philosophy which I call cultural socialism, as a religious form of wokeness, is dominant amongst students and younger people as well,” he said adding that amongst the young, this ideology has taken precedence over free speech, due process, equal treatment, and other Enlightenment values,” he said.

PA contributed to this report.

Owen Evans
Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.