Free speech is an issue that has been hotly contested for centuries. It still brings up a swathe of questions, and always tends to split up public opinion into two camps. One defends free speech at all costs, and the other recognises its limitations and potential harms.

It is clear that if either camp is taken to the extreme, it can have highly adverse effects on society. This can range from totalitarianism to the sharpening of societal divisions, hate crimes and oligarchies — which is why it is so polarising. The government’s new proposal marks the latest iteration of this debate.


A new Free Speech Champion

On February 16th, our Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the introduction of a new Free Speech Champion. This was part of a pledge to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at English universities. The proposal includes appointing a Free Speech Champion to the board of the Office for Students (OfS) and acts as a disincentive. This champion can threaten to withdraw public funding and impose sanctions on universities that fail to comply with free speech rules. These include actively promoting free speech, not cancelling speakers at the university, and not unfairly dismissing academics for expressing their viewpoints.

The policy paper refers to this as a fight against ‘cancel culture‘, on which my opinion is varied.

Issues with cancel culture

On the one hand, there are people who claim that institutions are censoring them and taking away their free speech. Most of the time, it is a decision by either the public or a private entity to stop buying products/services from someone who doesn’t fit with their message or values. One example of this is US Senator Josh Hawley, who had a book deal cancelled after his role in the Capitol riots. The senator then complained on both national television and Twitter that Simon & Schuster, the publishing company, had cancelled him — which makes me wonder; have we lost sight of what censorship really is? To me, a book deal being cancelled is not the same as being censored. Not even close.

On the other hand, there are instances of people being fired from their jobs, where they may have either unintentionally said something deemed offensive, or expressed a controversial view. In the former scenario, it would appear easier to simply illustrate why their words could be harmful. It is the latter scenario where it is difficult to discern whether universities are impeding free speech. Everything that concerns controversial views is largely a subjective, culture-based matter to me.

Another issue I find with cancel culture is that far too often there is little regard for acknowledging degree or extent. The public tend to ‘cancel’ someone accused of something as vile as sexual assault in a similar way to someone who, perhaps, gets a bit too defensive when confronted with the reality of systemic racism. Surely public reaction should be far stronger in the case of sexual assault, no? In fact, we tend to get just as many ‘clickbait’ headlines for both, which only serves to distort our conception of things that are fundamentally wrong.

The risks of the new proposal

The new proposal from Gavin Williamson seems not to acknowledge the sheer depth of this debate. Additionally, it is not clear where a Free Speech Champion should draw the line, or if there is one. Will a speaker still be invited to give a talk if the university discovers they are a Holocaust denier? Can an academic seek damages if the university dismissed them for a joke that compared people of African descent to monkeys?

The proposal has blurred these lines, making it harder to discern which speech a Free Speech Champion should protect. A single person would also find it difficult to remain impartial in his/her investigations of potential infringements.

It also stinks of hypocrisy. In September 2020, the Department for Education ordered English schools to avoid using resources from anti-capitalist organisations. Is this not cancel culture on an institutional level? And, by threatening to withhold public funding from universities, are they not again engaging in cancel culture?

It seems that the government is simply spinning the principle of free speech to favour their own ideology. As a result, universities and students will have to drastically change their approach in handling these issues. This is a move that could have profound implications for the future of academia.