Williamson's 'free speech champion' is a contradiction in terms

Gavin Williamson's 'free speech champion' is a contradiction in terms
5 min read
19 Feb, 2021
Comment: The education secretary has done more than enough to harm UK academia, the last thing we need is a Tory envoy policing free speech, writes Malia Bouattia.
Williamson plans to fine institutions that implement 'no platforming' against external speakers [Getty]
UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson went a step further this week in his so-called efforts to protect freedom of speech, by announcing the government will be appointing a "free speech champion" for universities. The title may have positive connotations, but in reality, this is just another exercise in over-policing students, staff and unions. 

This so-called "champion", is expected to investigate cases of free speech infringement and sit on the board of the Office for Students (OfS) - the higher education regulator for England. In addition, the OfS will be given further powers to fine institutions that implement no platforming against external speakers, or dismiss academics. 

And that's not all. Williamson has also announced that he plans to include students' unions in his plans, by extending existing free speech university regulations to them. In practice, this will mean further undermining their political and democratic independence, which has already severely been curtailed in recent years by the Charities Commission and the so-called counter-extremism programmes.

Under these new guidelines, it would not matter whether or not students democratically decide to refuse to invite a speaker onto campus. If the champion or OfS deems it inappropriate, they too could get fined. Championing free speech is taking on a whole new meaning.

Furthermore, those who "fall victim" to no platforming (a policy which has been used for decades in the labour and student movements to stop fascists from spreading their hatred and inciting violence towards oppressed groups), will be given the power to challenge such decisions in the courts.

There is a war on free speech afoot and an increasing encroachment on academic freedoms

While the Tories make a habit of undermining the needs of the vast majority in order to further their self-serving agendas, such a move by the Education Secretary beggars belief. 

During this pandemic, higher education has been catastrophically hit, largely thanks to years of Tory privatisation and marketisation of the sector. These policies have normalised competition between universities, cost cutting measures leading to redundancies and casualisation, and left academia unable to withstand unexpected external shocks.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, more and more academic staff have found themselves without work, or forced to accept exploitative short-term contracts. While entire courses are facing closure, service staff have been left with no employment or forced to into working with inadequate protection from the virus 

Where on earth was Williamson's response to these urgent issues? Where is his emergency support for the sector? Where is his plan for educators and students? Or is this latest policy a way to divert attention from his failings and further try to silence those who might fight back? 

It is striking that as the sector spins deeper into disarray, Williamson's primary concern is protecting those who are likely to use the current crisis to scapegoat migrants, Muslims, people of colour and the poor, and protecting their right to spew hatred on campuses. Especially given that campuses are currently closed due to a national lockdown - a situation which has more than a little to do with his incompetence.

Perhaps the victimisation of those offering a critique of the current order through their courses is exactly the point for the Tories? At the University of Leicester, 145 people are set to lose their jobs. The university specifically decided to target those who teach critical business studies and political economy for redundancy. These politically motivated assaults are becoming increasingly normalised.   

Read more: UK education secretary under fire for demanding universities adopt IHRA anti-Semitism definition

For example, there is the despicable move to target long-standing anti-racist scholar Gargi Bhattacharya along with many of her colleagues (including numerous union activists and people of colour) by the University of East London. In addition, Goldsmiths University has decided to deny furlough to members of staff with caring responsibilities who participate in industrial action. This is to say nothing of the longstanding targeting of students and staff under the umbrella of the so-called "War on Terror".

So much for defending everyone's right to expression. 

There is a war on free speech afoot and an increasing encroachment on academic freedoms. The thing is, it is university management and the government that are driving it - and they are using the current crisis to "cleanse" those opposed to their policies and practices. 

In fact, Williamson has made it very clear that this isn't about everyone's rights being defended, just those that espouse reactionary ideas. After all, in parallel to his appointment of a free-speech punisher, Williamson is also trying to force universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has been heavily criticised by academics, researchers, and policy makers a like for its censorship of anti-imperialist and anti-racist voices.

The best response to attempts at policing free speech is speaking freely

An open letter signed by UK-based lawyers explained that "its promotion by public bodies is leading to the curtailment of debate" and that the examples within the document are "widely used to suppress or avoid criticism of the state of Israel". The letter was addressed directly to the education secretary, accusing him of stifling free expression. 

Apparently, the free speech of Palestinians or their allies did not need safeguarding. Then again, they are not likely to gather support for the ascendant right-wing of the Tory party, led by Boris Johnson. 

Perhaps the recent events at University College London (UCL), where an internal academic board rejected the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-semitism, will serve as a motivation for other institutions to do the same. 

The best response to anti-democratic policies is more democracy. The best response to attempts at policing free speech is speaking freely. And the best response to the curtailing of civil liberties is civil disobedience. 

The government has identified universities - and education more generally - as a key political battleground. It did so from the moment it came into power and tripled tuition fees. At the time, we got a taste (although not enough) of what the sector could look like when it fights back. We are going to need much more of that same energy and resistance in the months to come, in order to defeat this government and its repressive measures. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.