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Gavin Williamson’s ‘free speech’ is an attack on our rights to organise

This article is over 3 years, 4 months old
The Tories’ crackdown on universities means protecting bigots from opposition. But as Nick Clark shows, real free speech battles have always involved defending the right to protest
Issue 2743
Protesting at Israeli minister Mark Regev at Soas university in 2017. This is the kind of protest that the Tories have a problem with
Protesting at Israeli minister Mark Regev at Soas university in 2017. This is the kind of protest that the Tories have a problem with (Pic: Guy Smallman)

It takes some brass neck to try and impose laws on universities defending “free speech” while shutting down the right to criticise Israel on campus. But that’s what Tory education minister Gavin Williamson is doing

Included in proposals Williamson outlined last week are measures to protect—and even promote—­bigoted views, while severely ­curtailing protest.

Free speech has never meant the right to speak unopposed or unchallenged. It’s never even meant the right to be heard in “respectful” debate or to not be shouted down.

In fact, at its most radical, it’s meant the opposite.

The rich, the powerful and the right have never lacked space or opportunity to spread their ideas or spew their bile. They own the media outlets that give them a platform—and set the boundaries of what is considered acceptable discussion.

Ordinary people have had to fight for their right to be heard.

Throughout history and across the globe, campaigns for free speech have been tied up with the right to organise and resist.

One of the best known examples is the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were deported for forming a union in 1832. Another is the protesters who were killed in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 demanding the vote and democratic rights.

The 19th century Chartist movement, the Suffragettes’ of the 20th century and the US Civil Rights Movement all tied in the right to organise and protest.


The Berkeley Free Speech Movement in California in 1964‑65 fought for the right of students to organise politically and for academics to research and teach ­radical ideas.

There are genuine fights for free speech today. Palestinian societies fight for the right to organise in universities. There are campaigns against the Prevent legislation that silences Muslims. And LGBT+ activists are battling those who aim to keep trans people marginalised.

Today Williamson uses the ­language of free speech and academic freedom to push our rights back. He cited the case of Felix Ngole, a student expelled from a social work course after calling gay sex a “wicked act”, to justify his measures.

Williamson’s policy paper ­complains that “academics have been pressured to adjust their reading lists for ideological reasons”.

That’s a reference to campaigns to “decolonise the curriculum”—to change what is taught to reflect racism and oppression.

Students having a say over what they are taught is the kind of free speech Williamson doesn’t like. So is their right to take action over it.

Williamson is forced to accept that “the right to free speech includes the right to challenge or protest”. But universities must “not allow protest to prevent speech from being heard (for instance, by drowning it out)”.

More vaguely, protesters shouldn’t “intimidate speakers or audience members”. The biggest threat to free speech on campus is Williamson and the Tories.

Universities monitor 62,000 events in one year due to Prevent

Muslims have borne the brunt of attacks on free speech. The force driving these attacks aren’t woke students—it’s the state.

In universities, Muslims who want to organise politically, hold events, or invite outside speakers have to do so under the surveillance of the Prevent duty.

This requires universities to monitor students for signs of “extremism” or that they are being “drawn into terrorism”—and report them to the authorities.

Universities are asked to vet speakers and events before deciding if they can go ahead.

Often they’ll impose conditions on events, such as having them monitored by university officers, or even the cops. The government’s Prevent strategy describes “extremism” as “the active opposition to fundamental British values”.

The main targets under this loaded definition are Muslims, and in particular Prevent aims to silence them from criticising Britain and its wars.

The most recently released statistics from the government’s Office for Students cover the 2017-18 academic year. More than 62,000 events and speakers were subjected to scrutiny by their universities under the Prevent duty that year.

Of those more than 2,100 were only allowed to go ahead with conditions attached.

The National Union of Students surveyed Muslim students about how they felt about Prevent that same year. More than one third said they’d felt negatively affected by Prevent.


“Respondents who reported having been affected by Prevent are significantly more likely than others to believe there is no safe space or forum on campus to discuss issues that affect them,” the report said.

“These students are also significantly more likely to note they would not be comfortable involving themselves in student debates around racism, Islamophobia, Muslim student provision, terrorism, Palestine or Prevent.”

It also meant Muslims felt less comfortable running for elected positions in their student unions.

Even Gavin Williamson’s policy document had to admit that parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights found Prevent had a “chilling effect on freedom of speech”.

But it doesn’t think anything should change, only saying that Prevent “should not be used to shut down or discourage lawful speech”.

Yet the Tories are determined to ensure that it does. They last month appointed William Shawcross to chair a review of Prevent.

Shawcross is a former chair of the Henry Jackson Society, a right wing think tank that blames Muslims for “extremism”.

He once said that, “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”

His book, Justice and the Enemy, is sympathetic to the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay.

And now he’ll set the limits of free speech for Muslims.

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