The joint committee on human rights (JCHR), a select committee of the Commons and the Lords chaired by Harriet Harman, have recently been considering the issue of free speech at British universities. The inquiry has been thorough, packed full with many thought-provoking contributions in evidence sessions.
On Tuesday, the committee published their report. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it eventually concluded that intolerant attitudes were interfering with free speech and debate on campus. To many students, this isn’t exactly shocking news: British campuses have witnessed a rise in calls for censorship since the turn of the decade. Whilst censorship is not ubiquitous, it is reassuring to see a parliamentary committee recognise the issue.
However, we must be wary of allowing government to use this report as an excuse to get involved and, invariably, make everything much worse. The first line of the report demonstrates why: ‘everyone has the right to free speech within the law.’ So, what exactly is free speech ‘within the law’ in the United Kingdom? Regrettably, not an awful lot, and the scope of that freedom is constantly being restricted.
Just last week, a Scottish comedian was found guilty of telling a ‘grossly offensive’ joke in a YouTube video. The Public Order Act of 1986 makes ‘deliberately insulting’ words a criminal act, and the Communications Act of 2003 criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. People who retweet or share such messages are also liable for prosecution. In 2016, Police Scotland menacingly warned its Twitter followers that those who share hurtful or unnecessary content ‘may receive a visit from us.’ The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act of 2012 will be repealed in April 2018, but until then Scots are at risk of being arrested for the crime of singing crude football songs.
In light of this Orwellian, Big Brother response, do we really want to allow government to implement new measures to protect free speech on campus? I certainly don’t; their dreadful track record speaks for itself.
Instead of leaving it to government to confront censorship, students must take a stand against the loud minority of small-minded, petty authoritarians on campus. The threat of censorship is rarely legal, it is of cultural origin. There are those who are more open to divergent and different thinkers, and then there are those who seek to limit alternative voices. Sadly, the latter category often has the influence. It’ll take those who care about free speech changing the cultural attitude towards debate, discussion, and the liberal dissemination of ideas to shift the mood in favour of freedom.
Tom Slater, deputy editor of Spiked online, raised similar concerns during his session in front of the select committee when he said ‘laws and more regulations building up in relation to this won’t do anything to solve the problem, it’ll be one form of illiberalism fighting another.’ He’s right. Government can’t make this change. As is stated in the report, ‘bureaucracy is not the best way to secure freedom,’ that power belongs to young citizens who want to think and speak for themselves, free from interference – be it from Whitehall or Student Unions.