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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has “named and shamed” several top universities for allowing claimed “hate speech” on campus. Cameron said:

“It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom, it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish.

Yet this is precisely a case where it is about stifling academic freedom. I think the term academic freedom is often over-used. In this case, however, it seems to me an unambiguous violation of the principle.

Academic freedom, in the United Kingdom, is outlined in the 1988 Education Reform Act thus:

to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions;

But Cameron said that “Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds” from unpopular and radical opinions. He seems to want to ban universities from hosting speakers with radical Islamic views (at a time when it has never been more important to try to understand radical Islam).

Free speech is hardly a panacea. I don’t condone all types of speech (racist hate speech, for example). I do not know precisely what these speakers said at these events. It may well be that I don’t share their views. But what kind of double-speak is it to claim that this is not about free speech or academic freedom? It is precisely about the intersection of the bounds of acceptable speech (i.e. speech is not free) and the spaces where it can appear/platforms it is given (universities and academic freedom). It is about deciding what opinions are allowed to be aired and questioned “within the law” at universities.