Is Free Speech Dead in Universities?

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Wed, Mar 25 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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The Good Life - University

Strange times for free speech.

A century ago, Germany was the authoritarian nation. Kaiser Wilhelm was presiding over its efforts in World War I, and young Adolf Hitler was working toward his opportunity in World War II. At the same time, Britain and America were havens of liberal ideals.

Yet those nations seem to have reversed roles on free speech and open debate. This year the German authorities decided to allow the republication of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. But simultaneously the British government has ordered its universities to police extremist ideas within their walls. And with the American commencement season approaching, we can expect another round of speaker dis-invitations as university students demand that they not have to listen to ideas outside their comfort zone.

Let’s take up the new British directives. Read for yourself this “Prevent Duty Guidance” document at Her Majesty’s Government’s site (or this PDF version) — especially pages 20-23 which focus on the special duties of Higher Education. Or you can take my summary word for it:

The U.K. government’s current fear is terrorism, especially of the Islamist type, and the large number of young people who become radicalized while at university. So the government has decided that students at institutions of higher education now need extra protection from extreme ideas. This will, as the document puts it, require some “interaction” with the universities’ traditional duty of free speech.

First on the government’s list of concerns are guest speakers who may expose the students to extreme views. More guidance on managing speakers will be forthcoming.

But students might also be influenced by already-radicalized students at student-group events and “through personal contact with fellow students and through their social media activity.” So the government directs universities to “recognise these signs” and learn how to respond.

Computers and other Information Technology devices must not be overlooked. IT can be used to access extreme material or for extreme purposes, so universities “should consider the use of filters as part of their overall strategy to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”

In a phrase that appears several times, the document emphasizes that the target is “not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism.”

This will require training of the universities’ staff who are, among other things, charged with “sharing information about vulnerable individuals.”

To administer all of this, the government recommends that universities establish “a single point of contact” and that they consult with government-appointed “coordinators” on how well they are performing their duties.

The document also includes a reminder of who is paying most of the bills, i.e., the British government, with the implication of he who pays the piper.

And a final point: the Secretary of State will be monitoring universities “to assess the bodies’ compliance,” with further details forthcoming.

What could go wrong? (Perhaps readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix already know the story: the Ministry will be sending Dolores Umbridge into Hogwarts.)

Let’s first dispense with an important but secondary issue — the document’s regular use of the weasel-word “extremism,” which is often a euphemism for “strongly-held positions that I disapprove of.”

Extremism is definitely not the problem. Some extreme ideas and actions are true, important, and healthy — extremism in hygiene as your surgeon is preparing to operate upon you, extremism in eating healthy foods and avoiding poison, and extremism in opposing child molesting. The problem of terrorism is the problem of false-and-destructive ideas, not extreme ideas.

Another important but secondary issue: the government’s inclusion of both violent and non-violent forms of extremism. What is non-violent extremism? Mahatma Gandhi was rather extreme about non-violence. Do his ideas count as suspicious? Of course not! comes the reply. Don’t be ridiculous! We don’t mean to ban Gandhi! But who really knows where the lines will be drawn? With the document’s bureaucratese language, we are to wait until the government-appointed coordinators decide and let us know.

Another secondary issue: already the special-interest lobbying has commenced and, on a technicality, student groups at Oxford and Cambridge universities get special exemption. (A colleague reminded me that the Communist spies Philby, Burgess, Blunt, and Maclean were recruited at Cambridge, so it’s not clear how effective that exemption will be.) But of course it was politicking that led to the elite-universities exemption, not high principle.

Yet the primary point in response to “Prevent Duty Guidelines” is about high principle.

The document references “the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs.” Excellent. Exactly those values are at stake.

But they cannot be preserved by indoctrination, half measures, or ignorance of their enemies. Our best defense of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance is citizens who are fully educated. That means those who know what those values mean and what they depend upon — and who know the best arguments by the opponents of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.

Especially in a university context, education requires principled commitment to free speech and robust debate. By trying to limit the range of ideas rather than extending it, the British government is implicitly admitting that it has little confidence that its best minds can out-argue the ideas of terrorists — even on their own turf at British universities.

That may be a genuine concern. Yet British officials would do much better for democracy by re-reading its trinity of Johns — Milton, Locke, and Mill — three philosophers whose advocacy of vigorous and open liberalism in thought and debate were essential to making Britain great in the first place. John Milton’s Areopagitica, John Locke’s A Letter concerning Toleration, and the second chapter of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty are timeless teachers of how to advance free societies.

We must also remember that for its entire history, liberal civilization has had to grapple with powerful ideological opposition. Plato, Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger — all of them are extreme thinkers implicated in varying degrees in extreme ideologies and extremely violent practice. But we must read them and understand them. No shortcuts.

So in combating the latest contender, politicized Islam, we will have more success by encouraging students to read Islamist writings, e.g., Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (as I will be doing this fall in my Philosophy of Religion course).

Prevent Guidance Compliance Officers sniffing around and self-censoring by institutions of higher education can lead only in the direction of failure — to universities that will graduate a whole generation of citizens ignorant of enemy ideas and unable to argue effectively against them.

Centuries ago the British best taught all of us how to live freely. They can once again find the way to defeat dangerous ideas — openly, cleanly, and steadfastly.

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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