The Conservative Party’s free speech reforms are staggeringly hypocritical

The proposals state that there is a balance to be struck between protecting free speech and preventing hate speech. The problem is, this is the absolute last government that should be deciding how that balance is struck

Femi Oluwole
Sunday 21 February 2021 15:17
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<p>The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has been instrumental in drawing up the government’s proposals</p>

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has been instrumental in drawing up the government’s proposals

We learnt this week that Boris Johnson’s government will be introducing new measures to strengthen free speech at universities, even creating a role called the “Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion”. And we all know why, of course. How could we not notice that right-wing views are being silenced? Our right-wing government has been screaming about how much their views have been silenced on... every media platform in the country.

Now, I agree with the parts of the government’s proposals, which state that free speech and the ability to put forward controversial ideas that challenge established thinking are essential in universities. The proposals also rightly state that there is a balance to be struck between protecting free speech and preventing hate speech. The problem is, this is the absolute last government which should be deciding how that balance is struck.

But first let’s look at the plans themselves. They include effectively banning student unions from no-platforming certain external speakers based on their political views. Student unions have elected presidents with policy platforms which may not include inviting racists to use the food hall for rallies. Again, that’s a balance issue.

The proposals mention that some students who voted for Brexit felt “uncomfortable” admitting so in class, and suggest that universities should take measures when “staff and students face criticism for expressing lawful views”. It’s weird that a “Free Speech Champion” would be tasked with protecting against academic criticism. I’m sure it’s a total coincidence that the government’s flagship policy – Brexit – is the one they wish to protect. Although, if I’d forced Brexit on a generation that overwhelmingly opposes it, I might be tempted to try to silence criticism, too. Doing it in the name of free speech, however – that’s a stroke of genius far beyond me.

The proposals also suggest mandating that student unions’ Codes of Practice formally “oppose boycotts”. Given that boycotts are a form of protest that was critical during the Civil Rights Movement, the idea that student unions would be formally mandated to oppose them is very worrying.

The proposal also specifically says a “head of faculty should not force or pressure academics” into “decolonising the curriculum”. This is troubling given that decolonising the curriculum is about ensuring that academia includes a more global perspective, rather than just the view from the UK. So the Free Speech Champion would be tasked with restricting universities to a strictly anglocentric viewpoint.

As a final bit of hypocrisy, the proposal cites the Human Rights Act, as a basis for the initiative. That’s funny because Boris Johnson was trying to opt out of parts of it six months ago. Added to this, the Act simply mirrors the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – an odd source of guidance for a government that doesn’t need European laws anymore.

They cited the ECHR’s “Freedom of Expression” but failed to mention that the ECHR simply bans public authorities from “interfering” with that right. It does not mandate that student associations have to create platforms for groups that go against the principles they were elected on. The ECHR even allows restriction in the interest of the “protection of health and morals”, which is what allows governments to criminalise hate speech and incitement.

Again, free speech is vital. I chose the Twitter handle @Femi_Sorry because I know I say controversial things and my sense of humour is dark as night. But here’s the problem: this is the government under which Greenpeace was placed on a terrorism watch list. This is the government which banned schools from using material from groups it considered “anti-capitalist”.

This is the government whose equalities minister said it was illegal to teach about “white privilege” as a fact, despite their own government website stating that black people are stopped and searched 10 times more than white people. This is the party that wouldn’t let 16-17 year olds vote in the last election and when asked why, MP Tobias Ellwood said it was because “we know it will favour one particular party”.

This is the party which appointed former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as head of Ofcom, with MP Steve Baker admitting that it was to make our media regulation “a bit more conservative and pragmatic in what is reported”. This is the government whose prime minister got fired from two newspapers for lying.

This is the government whose Brexit campaign both lied and broke the law. This is the government whose prime minister caused a 375 per cent spike in hate crime by saying Muslim women looked like bank robbers.

This is the government which impersonated a fact-checking website during an election campaign. This is the government that was elected on 44 per cent of the vote, wields a majority of 80 MPs despite the majority voting for parties much further to the left of them, and yet somehow claims right-wing views are the ones being silenced in the UK.

How can a government that censors the facts in schools, got elected on a four year campaign of disinformation, treats environmentalists as enemies of the state, denies voting rights to young people because they would vote against them, seeks to deliberately restrict the media to conservative reporting, and whose rhetoric leads to racist attacks, be trusted to find the right balance between free speech, misinformation, and hate speech? The fact that they’re trying, should make us all very worried about the path we’re heading down.

The fact is there is a reason why academic institutions are more socially left leaning. They are the places with access to all of the data which shows systemic inequality in society, and human beings naturally think something should be done about inequality. So it’s not surprising that this government feels threatened by universities. Being aware of the injustices in the world, and being willing to challenge them, is the definition of “woke”.

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