We must challenge this government’s warped idea of free speech

They're not defending free speech - they're just seeking to shore up their own power, writes Ilyas Nagdee

January 5, 2018 · 8 min read
Universities minister Jo Johnson

Universities Minister Jo Johnson recently announced that universities that fail to enforce an unclear notion of ‘free speech’ on their campuses will face government fines. This simply continues a manipulative line of argument by the government that, at its core, seeks to stifle student activism.

In light of initiatives like PREVENT and the crackdown on dissent within universities and society more broadly, the government fashioning itself as defenders of free speech seems, to many of us, as another case of its breathtaking hypocrisy. And rightly so. But these moves – both the unprecedented expansion of PREVENT in recent years and government’s newfound crusade for Free Speech – are in fact complementary, and fit together with the government’s wider neoliberal ambitions for the higher education sector.

Introduced in 2006, the PREVENT strategy formed one strand of the Labour government’s CONTEST counter-terrorism policy and sought to tackle ‘radicalisation’, exclusively among Muslims, towards ‘extremism’. The strategy has gone through a number of overhauls since then, most significantly in 2011 which expanded PREVENT in scope and into new sectors, including education for the first time. In 2015, PREVENT was placed on a legal basis for public bodies including universities under the ‘Prevent Duty’ of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

PREVENT has ballooned into an expansive, catch-all apparatus of surveillance. It is used to suppress dissent against the government’s foreign and domestic policy, with academics and activists identifying it as fundamentally at odds with Free Speech, and organisations like the National Union of Students calling for its abolition.

We cannot overlook the political context in which PREVENT 2011 emerged. Put out a little over a year after the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition took power and coming off the back of revitalised and powerful student revolt in 2010/11 against tuition fees and HE reforms. What was produced was a hastily-written, sloppily edited and at times contradictory push-and-pull between the Coalition partners, which put students and education institutions firmly in its crosshairs.

In the period since 2011, the HE sector has undergone twin processes of major change – that of the move to marketisation under the aforementioned HE reforms, and that of the securitisation of education – best represented by PREVENT and the newly-legal Prevent duty. Meanwhile, the creeping hand of policing and immigration enforcement within universities have forced students and staff alike in an ever more precarious position in their institutions, increasing the risk of speaking out and organising – especially for migrants, Muslims and those racialised as non-white.

At this point it is probably also worth reiterating what free speech should represent to those of us on the Left. We defend free speech fundamentally as a democratic means to hold power to account; for the ability to speak truth to the state and its agents from below, without the heavy-handed censorship characteristic of dictatorships. As such, free speech is indivisible from related freedoms like the freedom to organise, for the betterment of society’s material conditions, and it should seek to defend those most at risk from the state’s violence.

Understanding the link between free speech and structural power – and understanding it as a concept made possible by other freedoms – leads us to question the context within which free speech is invoked, for what purpose, by whom (and against whom). With this in mind the concept of free speech bandied about by the media, right-wingers and handwringing liberals – that is, the unfettered ability to ‘punch downwards’ even at the expense of migrants, Muslims, trans folk and so on, without consequences – rings even more hollow. And therefore naturally, we understand that the state can never be the ultimate safeguards or arbiters of free speech – because they cannot hold themselves to account.

But with free speech isolated and watered down, the space is left open for charlatans like Johnson to propound a decidedly neoliberal free speech. One that marginalises the ability of most targeted on campuses to organise against their oppression, whilst in the next breath demanding that universities crack down on the ability of students to oppose the practices of the Israeli state, or that NUS drop its opposition to illiberal measures like PREVENT.

The media-fuelled hysteria around ‘free speech suppression’, ‘no platform’ and ‘safe spaces’ relies, just like the ‘political correctness gone mad’ phenomenon that preceded it, on disingenuous caricatures and deceptive conflations. The label of No Platform/Safe Space is derisively, and often inaccurately, applied to a wide range of tactics and strategies within the student activist repertoire. Everything from protesting mouthpieces of the Israeli state, to choosing not to speak alongside certain speakers. And from student campaigns seeking to actively shape knowledge production and critique colonial vestiges, down to trite privilege politics.

The media’s broad-brush conflation of diverse tactics with No Platform policies, parroted by the government in its announcement, both does an insulting disservice to the work of student organisers on the ground, and also betrays the government’s true targets with its free speech posturing. This campaign aims to strike at the heart of the student organising and direct action, and clamp down on the student movement’s rich history of combating injustice and oppression.

Hence why PREVENT and this latest free speech campaign are complementary, rather than contradictory, measures. As our education system becomes increasingly marketised and dictated by the demands of business, PREVENT is used to monitor and smother student organising under the banner of ‘countering extremism’, whilst ‘free speech’ amounts to giving government-friendly ideologues free rein on campuses to spout their propaganda unchallenged. When combined these have served a need to manufacture compliance and passivity in the face of fundamental threats to our education, thereby shutting down universities as spaces for organising and reimagining society.

Whether or not any university ends up punished for breaching either the new free speech obligation or the Prevent duty, the same chilling effect will haunt the HE sector. University management will double down on student unions demanding they police their membership, with that pressure in turn pushed downwards on to the student organisers at the frontline of campaigning against racism, sexism and neoliberalism in our universities.

In short, there is indeed a threat to free speech in Britain today, and it comes from this government. The left needs to reclaim and re-politicise the concept of free speech. We need to have the difficult internal discussion about the usefulness of certain tactics in any given scenario. How do we argue for a notion of free speech which is about challenging power and protecting a boarder scope of social freedoms, rather than one which simply protects the status quo? How do we balance the demands of free speech with other fundamental rights and freedoms? How and when do we use ‘no platform’ tactics to keep one another safe from violence? We must answer these questions if we are to defend free speech from a censorious state, determined to water down the concept to satisfy their ideological allies.

With Jo Johnson’s announcement, what is truly at stake for students is not some grand struggle of liberty versus intolerance taking hold of our campuses, but one of our movement’s strength and plurality facing down the grip of government repression.


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