The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, introduced last month, has been welcomed by some campaigners who warn free speech has long been frozen in a perfect storm of student “snowflakes,” hyper political correctness, and radical professors.
But not all are convinced. Some long-time academic freedom campaigners are also concerned that the universities will simply game any new bureaucracy, and that more legislation may hamper any natural thawing of “generation snowflake.”
“The real issue that’s being debated is legislation versus culture,” Dennis Hayes, president of Academics for Academics Freedom (AFAF) told The Epoch Times.
“Universities are very clever, they’ll get round this in various ways,” said Hayes, who has been at the forefront of the fight for academic freedom for a decade and a half. “We already had legislation that says they must promote free speech, and they’ve got around it.”
He said that the new legislation also doesn’t tackle all-powerful gagging clauses.
The current draft of the bill sets out three major new changes.
First, it tightens existing legislation to make promotion of free speech a statutory duty. “That means if universities fail to do it, they can be taken to court,” said Hayes.
Second, it brings the previously independent student unions within that remit. The student unions are responsible for many of the bans on speakers that happened since 1974, according to Hayes.
Third, it requires universities to each have a director of academic freedom and free speech at the office for students, dubbed a “free speech champion.” They will be tasked with overseeing a process of complaints about the university or student unions. “That’s going to be a major change,” said Hayes.
The Free Speech Union, Policy Exchange, and some other campaigners have welcomed the thrust of the legislation.
Other free speech organisations, such as the English PEN and Index on Censorship, claim that it could stifle free speech.
Some commentators and organisations, especially those that are left-leaning, question the existence of cancel culture in the first place.
Hayes said he half supports the legislative push. “But I’m really worried that it will make people quieter than ever before. To avoid getting into trouble, people will just not say anything,” he said.
Puppy Rooms and Petting Zoos
He said that over a decade ago he was sounding the alarm on the potential impact of the growing therapeutic culture.
That still needs tackling, he said.
“I don’t see how the new legislation will change the sort of therapeutic attitude that universities have towards students; constantly protecting them when they come to university, providing them with counselling sessions and anti-stress sessions in puppy rooms and petting zoos.”
But he thinks growing numbers of students no longer want to be seen as snowflakes.
“The word ‘snowflake’ came out in 2016. That was sort of the word of the year that year. But since then, I think students have been tired of being patronised and infantilised. So my hope is with the students, in fact, that they will actually challenge the lecturers to speak up.”
In the past, he said he was depressed by the students’ attitudes towards free speech. That changed around 2017, he said.
“I was speaking at University of Warwick and students were coming up and saying, ‘how can I start a free speech society?’ And I think over the last few years free speech societies have been set up in several of the universities in the UK. It’s students doing it outside of the students union. It takes one girl in Oxford, sets up a free speech society in a pub … that’s a really positive change.”
That’s exactly the kind of change he thinks could be discouraged by new legislation, by creating a passive culture with people reliant on external rules.
In response to the bill last month, Universities UK, which represents all 140 UK universities, said in a statement the law already requires them to protect free speech and academic freedom.
“It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate—focusing on the small number of incidents—and does not duplicate existing legislation or create unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences,” it said.
‘A Very Authoritarian Movement’
Professor Eric Kaufmann is a leading researcher into cancel culture in the Western academic world.
He welcomed the government’s proposed policy, which he said aligns with recommendations he made in a report by Policy Exchange.
He said it is naive to think anything other than legislation can now “clip the wings” of what he told The Epoch Times is a “very authoritarian movement”.
Like Hayes, he said that many problems come from people knowing how to manipulate the system.
“Protagonists know how to to use this therapeutic lingo in order to shut down speech,” he said. “The new legislation aims to clarify that academic freedom takes precedence, that universities are not going to be allowed, essentially, to bring up the harassment or reputational damage claims as a way of wriggling out of their free speech obligations.”
“Previously, universities were able to hold all the power and operated in many ways as kangaroo courts and did not actually abide by the laws as intended,” he said.
Kaufmann thinks that the threat of legislation can help drive cultural change, with universities knowing that the authorities are breathing down their necks.
“Universities have a very strong incentive to be sure they’re not falling on the wrong side of this. And therefore they are less likely to try it on, to be honest, and more likely to just tell activists, ‘sorry, our hands are tied, we can’t do anything.'”
Kaufmann said that the appetite for cancel culture has been growing among young people aged 21–28, but with some evidence of a shift the other way among 18 to 21-year-olds.
Kaufmann described the driving force behind cancel culture as “left modernism,” which he said is the “contemporary hegemonic ideology in elite institutions.”
He said it is a blend of liberalism, Marxism, and the therapeutic ethos of universities.
‘An Ideological Conflict’
A seminal study by Kaufmann earlier this year found there was a crisis of free speech at universities. He found the array of “no-platforming, dismissal campaigns, social media mob attacks, open letters … formal complaints, and disciplinary action,” mostly targeted conservative academics and students.
He doesn’t think that cancel culture is a matter of a silent majority not speaking up.
“All the data I’ve seen shows that this is a battle of ideas—it’s an ideological conflict,” he said, adding that around half of academics support the aims of the cancel culture mob, even if they find their means distasteful. “They like the social justice aims of the cancellers but they don’t really like firing people. They’re kind of torn, therefore they’re not going to speak up.”
Both Hayes and Kaufmann—who has recently endured a campaign to oust him—said that simply being in favour of free speech as an academic these days risks the ire of the cancel mob.
“The unions and left-wing groups in the UK think free speech is a right-wing, fascist sort of plot, and you shouldn’t have free speech on certain issues,” said Hayes. “So in that case, there’s even arguing for free speech can be very, very difficult.”
Hayes is also worried about another area that won’t be addressed by the new legislation: gagging clauses.
“Most universities have a gagging clause on disciplinary policies,” he said. “That means you can’t say anything if you are accused over even just a casual comment.”
“You can be sometimes suspended for gross misconduct, which means you’re in danger of losing your job and you go through a long protracted disciplinary procedure … but you can never make it public or it’s another disciplinary offence.”
Hayes gave the example of a lecturer who, despite a gagging clause, went public about what happened when he criticised the creation of a multi-faith centre.
“He was talking to a student, and she said, ‘What do you think about [the multi-faith centre]?’ And he said—paraphrasing slightly—‘Well, I’m a lecturer in mathematics, I’d rather have a centre for the study of mathematics, rather than this religious nonsense.’ Well… suspended for gross misconduct. For that one comment. That’s the sort of thing that people face.”