“It’s time to stand up to the stupid bans of the student Stasi and protect free speech in the UK”, read the headline. As Brendan O’Neill, a man charitably given the title of ‘political commentator’, re-wrote his rant about the ‘free speech crisis’ at Britain’s universities yet again, this time in The Sun, the Joint Committee on Human Rights was performing its own investigation to find out if the media’s obsession with ‘snowflake students’ was based in any substantive fact.
The conclusion? That media reports of a free speech crisis are “clearly out of kilter” with reality. A few weeks after the report’s publication, I talk to Harriet Harman, the Committee’s chair, to discuss its findings. While the report was firm in its declaration that the media is overwhelmingly sensationalist in its claims that ‘no-platforming’ is rife on campuses up and down the nation, Harman says that there is still definitely cause for concern.
“We went into it with an open mind,” she tells me. “And what is clear is that there is a problem, and it is rooted in a number of causes.
“We started our enquiry because [former universities minister] Jo Johnson was making big proclamations that students were repressing the right of free speech,” she says, “and that campuses were restricted and that students weren’t able to debate because of what other students were doing. The right of free speech is a really important and basic human right.”
Few would contest this claim, even at this university, named the most “ban-happy” earlier this year by O’Neill’s spiked magazine. And Harman recognises this: when I ask if the shutting down of debate is as sinister as its portrayal suggests, she is quick to disagree.
“It’s well-intentioned,” she says, “but if you’re the administrator responsible for a policy then you want to make loads of application forms, time limits, procedures, and you think you’re being helpful, but by the end of it you’ve got an organogram which covers several pages of A4, [then you are] actually not an enabler of free speech but an inhibitor.”
Most of this explanation seems alien to the majority of Oxford students, but it is the reality within certain British universities.
“The irony is that the way universities go about this is that they have a policy on free speech and then loads of procedures,” Harman explains. “If a student society wants to organise a meeting, then some universities have really onerous applications and time limits, some even asking for a copy of the speech that will be given in advance, and having to have permission from the authorities before someone can speak. So the procedures and application forms, the hoops that universities make students jump through in order to organise a meeting, are too onerous.”
As she tells me this, I cannot escape the thought that Harman seems an odd choice to be heading up a government committee investigating the state of free speech in universities. Having graduated from the University of York in 1972 and grown up in an era when the term ‘safe space’ meant the amount of room left in a strongbox, she does not seem to be a natural fit for the role.
Indeed, the contrast between Harman and universities minister Sam Gyimah, who recently called for the first government intervention into free speech policies on campus since 1986, could hardly be more blatant.
Gyimah, a Somerville alumnus, is about as brazenly in favour of free speech as possible: he is an ex-president of the Oxford Union, an institution which brands itself as ‘the last bastion of free speech’, and part of the generation of Tories who are ‘conservative’ in party, not politics. Harman, meanwhile, has relished her lack of frontbench involvement since the 2015 General Election: she has sat on the Joint Committee on Human Rights since last November, and is a serene, respected voice within the party.
It is for that reason that her position within the enquiry might make more sense than would seem to be the case for a 68-year-old Labour veteran investigating student culture. Harman’s is a powerful voice within the Commons. She commands cross-party respect not just because of her experience, but because of the reputation she has cultivated over a 35-year career as an MP. For a progressive politician, she is remarkably measured, and the questions she says she asked at the start of the enquiry – “is there a major problem? Is it just up by the Daily Mail?” – show an impartiality and open-mindedness that are so often lacking within the intensely partisan nature of British politics. In an era of performative politics, Harman is the sort of politician that the Commons needs.
It is, therefore, important to note how alarmed she seems by the latest means of protest among students. “There is a problem which really has to be stamped out, and cannot be tolerated,” she says. “It’s never in any circumstances acceptable when masked people wearing balaclavas burst in to disrupt a meeting and stop it happening.”
It might seem shocking that this can happen on campus in a liberal democracy. But it is not something new, and incidents along the lines that Harman describes have become increasingly regular in the past three years.
Indeed, the committee’s report is quick to use an Oxford protest as an example. “An event called “Abortion in Ireland” organised by the Oxford Students for Life society in November 2017 was disrupted by a protest organised by the Oxford Student Union Women’s Campaign,” the report says. “The protest was held inside the room, and prevented the speakers from being heard for around 40 minutes of the event. Police were called, and the event organisers were asked to move rooms twice before the event could proceed. Despite the disruptive nature of the protest, the Student Union published two statements in support of the protest the next day.”
This is where the crucial finding of the report comes to light. Harman insists that so-called ‘hate speech’ is, in the majority of cases, within the law, whether we like or not; and that unless speech is unlawful, it should be allowed.
“When that happens, the papers always assume those are students, and that is not always the case,” she says. “They might be people from outside coming in and disrupting a meeting, and if they do that, that’s threatening behaviour, and a breach of the peace – there are criminal offences related to that. If they are students doing it, wearing balaclavas, disrupting the meetings of other students, then they should be disciplined, without question or doubt.”
Harman continues to suggest students should foot most of the blame for the shutting down of debate, and tells me that ‘safe space’ culture is out of control. “It’s perfectly acceptable within unis to have ‘safe spaces’ whereby people from one religion can get together as people of that religion in order to discuss their religion or do their worship,” she says, “and they want that to be a space that they can do that without opening it up. It might be that you have a meeting for women who have been victims of sexual harassment, a space where the people there are just people who have experienced sexual harassment, or indeed men for that matter.
“What you shouldn’t do is leap from that to saying the entire university campus is a safe space, or all university premises are a safe space, and anybody who is likely to say something that is insulting or offensive to anybody can’t do that because the uni is a safe space.
“The concept of safe spaces has been abused in a way that inhibits free speech. It’s got its place, but it can’t be comprehensively assigned to everything.
“‘Hate speech’ is not unlawful,” Harman says. “What is unlawful is speech which incites racial hatred. What was put in our guidance is quite clear. A lot of the concepts around people think are law, but they are not. Therefore, what we do is we say: ‘you can do anything you want, but here’s the law, and you can’t do anything that’s unlawful’.”
This is not, it should be noted, a popular opinion among the left. Last week, a group of students campaigned on the High Street against O’Neill’s invitation to speak at a dinner at Queen’s College. O’Neill’s speech – since published in full online – was inflammatory, and undoubtedly offensive: “The word ‘transphobia’ is used to demonise the belief that men cannot become women. Fighting transphobia isn’t about ending discrimination against trans people – it is about silencing moral views that are now considered unacceptable,” he wrote.
But according to the report, O’Neill fell some way short of the line. “The entitlement is not in the speaker, the entitlement is in the students who invite the speaker who they want,” Harman says. “It is down to the speaker not to break the law. If I invite a speaker down, then it is not my responsibility if they break the law – it’s theirs. And everybody should stay within the law.”
But this is not just about students. It is also about bureaucracy, and the people Harman labels “well-intentioned inhibitors of free speech”.
What is the Prevent duty?
The duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act
2015 on specified authorities, in the exercise of their functions, to have due regard to the
need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism
“The Prevent duty certainly has a chilling effect on many students fearing that they might get reported under the Prevent duty secretly by their uni, if they invite a certain speaker down to attend a meeting and then ask questions which are deemed by somebody to be in breach of the Prevent duty,” she tells me. “The way the Prevent duty is operating – and we heard this first-hand from students – is undoubtedly inhibiting free speech, and that’s why we called for there to be a [fresh] review.
“The government itself is responsible for some of the inhibition on free speech,” Harman says. This is when the fact that she no longer has a party line to tow in the same way she used to is useful: while an attack on the Prevent duty, for example, might seem like a cry against the Conservative Party, it falls under the ‘Contest’ strategy developed during Tony Blair’s time in office. Harman’s criticisms can be treated with less cynicism that most.
“I don’t think it’s about changing the law, I think it’s about stopping the agencies all overlapping and oppressing students, and weeding out the bad and conflicting advice.”
With so many different ideas floating around free speech – universities and student unions often contradict both each other and the national guidance – it is no surprise that the waters have become this murky. “You’ve got conflicting guidance from the uni authorities, from the Prevent guidance, from the Charities Commission, from the Equality and Human Rights Committee – you’ve got four lots of conflicting guidance, and that makes it a minefield.
“So what [we have] done is issued our own comprehensive and clear guidance for use by student societies or by uni administrators. And we’re urging the government to adopt it, and we’re distributing it to societies and to unis, because we’ve got an expert committee, we’ve collected evidence, we’ve seen what the problem is, and we’ve produced this guidance in order to solve it.”
Harman makes things seem simple and clear-cut, even when they are not. But as I put the phone down, I remain wholly unconvinced by the report’s findings. One set of guidelines is unlikely to change free speech culture across universities, and however much the government tries to intervene, I suspect that this remains an issue that will be discussed to death with minimal change. There is no free speech ‘crisis’ on university campuses, regardless of what right-wing commentators want to say. Of course, we should be concerned by the precedent set by censorship – but this is not the calamity that right-wing commentators would like us to think it is.
Harman’s report may serve some purpose, and there is no doubt that she is the right sort of politician for the role she had, but we should not expect much to change as a result of it. Isolated incidents of censorship will continue to spring up, but introducing guidelines misses the point almost entirely: if the Theresa May portrait ‘scandal’ tells us anything, it is that students will always want to scrutinise governments, and protest against them. As much as Harriet Harman and her report might think they can change a culture, a set of guidelines is unlikely to achieve much.