Free speech at university has a storied past

Our universities were not built as havens of free expression, and Oxford never led the way on free speech

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Anybody who looks into the history of uni­versities in the Western world, not least in Great Britain, can tell you of their origins in the established church. In the eleventh century, as Oxford University first began its teaching, the private halls existed to teach the nation’s second sons—and it was just sons—the theory and the practices of the contemporary Catholic Church.

The idea of universities as a haven for freedom of expression would have seemed totally alien to the medieval scholar. Though members of the University had, by statute, certain rights not pos­sessed by ordinary citizens, these were linked to the religious nature of the institution and not to preconceived notions of the place of the univer­sity in public life. Most topics remained beyond the realm of scholarly discussion: from the Pope’s supremacy to the King’s authority, the universi­ties did not always harbour enlightenment ideals.

The change began slowly, and it began on the continent. In 1516, just one year before Corpus Christi was founded, the Dutch humanist Eras­mus published The Education of a Christian Prince. Written as a book of advice for new rulers, Eras­mus argued that “in a free state, tongues too should be free.” His humanist ideals are not much heeded: the book is published just as the era of religious persecution begins in earnest across Europe.

Nevertheless, moves towards free expression start to pick up pace as the Renaissance continues. By 1644, John Milton publishes a pamphlet argu­ing for toleration, claiming in his Areopagitica: “The liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, [is] above all liberties.” The Glorious Revolution, 45 years on, confirms “freedom of speech” in parliament with the eleva­tion of William and Mary to the throne.

For much of this era, however, the universities remained behind the rest of society in free speech terms. As late as 1866, a person could only receive a degree from Oxford if they were a member of the Church of England: only a decade prior had fellows and professors been released from an obligation to be ordained ministers. Piecemeal change followed in the early twentieth century as compulsory daily worship was abolished and women’s colleges given statutes.

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By the mid-twentieth century, the acceptabil­ity of freedom of expression in universities was beyond doubt. After the turmoil of the war and subsequent austerity, the reaction of students in the 1960s to perceived injustices abroad and at home led to protests across Europe. This was, however, accepted: in policy terms, little may have changed, but the voice of students was as clear as ever.

Universities, by the late twentieth century, were places for young people to exit their comfort zones and be challenged by new ideas. Few believe free­dom of speech rights are under serious threat: a survey by The Atlantic last year revealed that 73 per cent of American students believed freedom of speech was secure or very secure. Whatever the reality may be, we have still come a long way since our universities were first founded.