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Five Fellows of the British Academy respond to the free speech debate

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In recent years, controversies around ‘free speech’ have often occurred on university campuses. In February 2019, the government released a guide to free speech for universities, in an attempt to standardise responses to questions around freedom of expression. As conversations around hate speech, no-platforming, censorship and safe spaces routinely make newspaper headlines, five Fellows of the British Academy provide their perspective on the debate.

Sue Mendus FBA, Morrell Professor Emerita of Political Philosophy at the University of York

Why do we value free speech? There is no doubt that we do value it, and that we object if we believe it to have been compromised. Thirty years ago, copies of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses were burned as blasphemous, and the burnings provoked an angry backlash in defence of free speech. More recently there have been hostile reactions to those who introduce ‘no platform’ policies at British universities. In these – and many other – cases the value of free speech has been vigorously defended. But what is that value? Following the philosopherJohn Stuart Mill, many have argued that free speech is necessary in the interests of truth, but not all speech aims at truth. Some speech aims to offend, to outrage, to insult, or to incite to violence. It is not clear why we should value, or permit, these kinds of speech. Not, at any rate, without further argument.  

Conor Gearty FBA, Professor of Human Rights Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science

A law passed in 1986 mainly to protect unpopular Tory ministers on campus still requires that ‘Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any [university] establishment … shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’ Note ‘within the law’ – so no racism, or unreasonable provocation that causes harassment, alarm or distress. The duty specifically requires ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ that a speaker is not denied an opportunity ‘on any ground connected with – (a) the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or (b) the policy or objectives of that body.’ Sometimes the law gets it right.

Cambridge University students protest Marine Le Pen's Student Union address, February 2013. Photo: Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Protesters gather outside Cambridge University's Student Union as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right 'Front National' party, prepares to address the Union's debating society. Photo: Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Joya Chatterji FBA, Professor of South Asian History at the University of Cambridge

In my field, the debate about freedom of speech is best explored at its extremes. How far should ‘hate speech’ be permitted on campus? Is no-platforming the way to counter such speech at its most abusive? My view is that calm and sober rebuttal of bigotry – again and again, ad nauseam – is a more effective way to challenge hate-fuelled attitudes, and to persuade the public that those attitudes are wrong. No-platforming can be counterproductive. If we as liberals, anti-racists and leftists at universities endorse this stance against racists, anti-Semites or Islamophobes, one day we might ourselves be shut up and shut out.

Where hate speech incites violence, there may be a case to suppress it to avert injury. However, preventing offence is not a sufficient reason on its own. People claim a ‘right not to be offended’, but they cannot enforce it by silencing others. This is what the Hindu nationalists who savaged M.F. Husain canvases did: it is unacceptable.

But we cannot have double standards in this matter. If we are appalled at the desecration of Husain’s art, we have to accept that others may be horrified when a statue of an imperial ‘hero’ is vandalised. Decolonising the curriculum should mean debating the history and power structures of empire; the literature and art it produced. It should mean creating space and time to discuss what racism was, what it is today, and how and why it is alive and well in a neoliberal world in crisis. Speech, rather than silencing debate, is the way forward.

Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, Professor of the History of the Church, University of Oxford

Universities are factories of curiosity and conflicting opinion. When we imported these institutions from the Islamic world, they evolved a method of enquiry called scholasticism, simply meaning ‘the way it’s done in universities’ (scholae in Latin). The method was argument: I make a proposition; you deny it; I affirm it with reasons, and so on. Since the 12th century universities have been in the business of making literally objectionable statements; we should not stop now. This has always involved drawing boundaries. Back then, knowingly to persist in saying the wrong thing about the eucharist might get you burned alive. Society will always demand boundaries to protect itself; we have the luxury of interrogating the past to see how not to draw them.

David Feldman FBA, Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of English Law at the University of Cambridge

Freedom of speech is important everywhere, but dangerous. It can cause harm as well as benefit to individuals and society. A shared commitment to maintaining the freedom may be an important strand in the moral and social bonds holding society together. On the other hand, some speech may undermine those bonds by undermining institutions (through ‘fake news’, for example) or challenging deeply held, widely shared beliefs, and these types of speech may later seem, in historical perspective, to have been particularly valuable for human progress. What personal and social damage should society be prepared to risk in order to maintain the freedom, and on what terms?

The question has special immediacy in democracies and higher education institutions (HEIs), because a central purpose of both is to allow received wisdom and beliefs to be questioned. For that reason, HEIs have a legal duty to ‘take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees... and for visiting speakers’, and particularly that the use of premises ‘is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with (a) the beliefs or views of that individual or any member of that body; or (b) the policy or objectives of that body’. But ‘freedom of speech within the law’ is complex, because the law has to try to balance the value of speech against its harms, generally and in particular circumstances. How much should we be willing to suffer to maintain free speech as a general good?


Fellows of the British Academy are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship in any branch of the humanities and social sciences. The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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