Opinion | Gavin Williamson’s free speech policies fail to understand the insidious problem with campus culture

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By Jules Chan, Second Year, Law

At some point in the last year and a half since I arrived at university, I stopped speaking openly about my conservative political beliefs, and started half-heartedly laughing along to demeaning jokes about the “Tory Scum” so prevalent on campus.

I imagine it was this culture that was on the education secretary Gavin Williamson’s mind when he proposed a new office that would oversee and sanction universities and unions accused of infringing on freedom of speech.

Conservative rhetoric has a complex relationship with free speech. For a party that is increasingly torn towards right-wing populism, the balance between securing freedom of expression and preventing hate speech is often contentious within the party.

Who gets to dictate this balance is an even more difficult question to answer. Yet, a common misconception is that the right to be heard is a universal and absolute right, which still permeates argument and policy.

The education secretary’s insistence on tackling what he calls the ‘chilling effect’ of no-platforming is a prime example. The “war on woke” narrative presents unions and universities as ground zero for political censorship, but this simply isn’t the case. Research done by You-Gov in 2018 found that student opinions on when freedom of speech should be restricted more or less corresponded to those of the general public - a sign that a good balance had been struck.

The Conservatives seem perfectly happy to point to attempts of no-platforming or cancelling as evidence of an overwhelming attempt to undermine freedom of expression and silence debate - whilst directly ignoring the push-back and debate that these instances provoke.

The “war on woke” narrative presents unions and universities as ground zero for political censorship

Problems with the government’s proposals go far beyond the establishment it seeks to monitor. Its influence is also detrimental to student efforts looking to address actual issues with university discourse. Humouring the fictitious belief that there is an elaborate institutionalised conspiracy to silence those who aren’t woke, makes it difficult for conservatives to be taken seriously when genuine transgressions and hostility takes place on a personal level.

What the education secretary doesn’t seem to understand is that the problem with campus culture doesn’t come from Universities or Unions. A polarisation of political discourse is underway, and its manifestation in student culture is organic. The homogeneity of the student population, being predominantly young, educated and riddled with debt, causes an echo chamber.

This makes the community particularly vulnerable to a small minority of bad faith actors, misinterpreting the support of their peers as justification to push the boundaries of acceptable discourse into the territory of personal attacks, bullying and threats.

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The normalisation of comments such as those frequently seen on platforms like Bristruths, claiming that there is humour in getting Tories to cry for example, essentially encourage an intolerant and hostile culture of self-censorship that is detrimental to mental health. These issues require nuanced conversation, yet there is little in the government’s plan to suggest any interest in stopping this “culture war” rather than winning it.

The issues with Gavin Williamson’s policies stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how student discourse is conducted in our universities, and apathy towards the actual insidious problems with campus culture, but perhaps this was to be expected.

Featured Image: Unspash / Ravi Sharma


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