England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Tory Free Speech bill the real threat to free speech – defend the right to protest

"Black Lives Matter - We Won't Be Silenced - London's Oxford Circus - 8 July 2016." by alisdare1 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Education minister Gavin Williamson’s new ‘Free Speech’ Bill, which is due to be implemented into university policy, is a sinister attack on students, lecturers, and any person who believes in protecting the voice of the oppressed.

Williamson’s bill, under the guise of ‘protecting’ free speech, allows any individual who feels they are being unjustly censored to “bring civil proceedings” against universities. This comes at the same time as Kill the Bill protests and nationwide protests against Israeli state terror – both movements with the goal of resisting governmental policy which violates democratic rights (here and in Palestine). 

The Tories claim the bill will ‘distinguish between lawful, if offensive, views on one hand and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation, and violence on the other’. But who are the Tories to make this distinction? If, for example, fascist or far right speakers, or representatives of a repressive regime, arrive to speak at universities – like the Israeli ambassador did at universities in Warwick and London to the anger of students there – the bill could outlaw the right to protest against them. Surely this is the real threat to free speech. In fact, a protest against the Israeli ambassador was just one example of a so-called “free speech violation” cited by the Tories to justify this bill. 

History of empire

In an atmosphere where the Tories seem to pick and choose what is and isn’t a “violation of free speech”, this bill could actually be used to silence the voice of the progressive left, while the right is given a protected platform to speak, with protests and other actions restricted. While we don’t support blanket ‘no platform’ policies being used in all cases, and believe such policies should be reserved for use against fascists, we defend resolutely the right of students and staff to democratically decide who is invited to speak at, for example, student union debates, and to protest against figures who represent oppressive and exploitative policies. This includes all pro-capitalist politicians!

This bill essentially attempts to provide a shield for individuals with harmful, backward ideas to speak freely without fear of opposition. On the gov.uk website, the Tories also point to a so-called case of ‘censorship’ in the one-hundred plus academics who expressed opposition to one Professor Nigel Biggar’s claim that we should have ‘pride’ in the British empire. This epitomises the danger of the Tories possessing the power to decide whose ‘free speech’ needs protecting: according to Williamson, to feel a degree of ‘pride’ at Britain’s colonial history is an opinion which must be safeguarded, and at the same time, those who oppose this are unjustly censoring them? 

The wounds of Britain’s colonial past are still felt today. Black and Asian people still face systemic racism. Large numbers were arrested while attending recent BLM protests – arrests which Boris Johnson has openly supported. The passing of the free speech bill would suggest very ominous times ahead. As well as aiming to create a more comfortable environment for right-wing and far-right voices, the threat of sanctions on universities and student unions if they are deemed to violate the bill is actually an assault on progressive debate. 

Real threat to free speech: The Tories

Another such case of “free speech” being “violated” was seen at the University of Edinburgh, where university management renamed a building which had previously been named after David Hume –  an 18th-century philosopher with racist views – after months of campaigning from anti-racist students. So called ‘free speech warriors’ have argued that this, as well as the tearing down of colonial statues, is not only a violation of free speech but an attempt to erase history. 

In reality, these movements represent quite the opposite. This is an empowering example of people exercising their right to demand action to reckon with the racism of British capitalism’s past. Far from the erasure of history, many students want to shine a light on the parts of history the Tories don’t want us to acknowledge. If anything, it is the Tories who are the real threat to freedom. We must remember that they don’t really care about free speech. 

This bill is, at its core, another means of protecting those in power. The targeting of universities is all about intimidating young people. They hope to prevent people from speaking out against oppression, especially when this gives us confidence to take it further. As defenders of capitalism, they want universities to consistently reflect the interests of the ruling class, and are clearly anxious about growing radicalism and anti-capitalist sentiments among youth. The possibility that any person would have the right to sue a university if they feel they are being unfairly censored is problematic. Capitalist courts are not impartial and will not be ‘even handed’ in applying such legislation – not least because it is the wealthy who will be best able to fund these proceedings. 

It is no surprise that this bill, along with the latest Police and Crime Bill, should come at the same time as monumental waves of protest against gender-based violence, against Israeli state terror and the UK’s role in supporting it, among other issues. The Tories feel threatened by the power of mass resistance, but will always try to frame it another way. Whether claiming to protect free speech with a Free Speech Bill, or claiming to protect the public from ‘criminal’ protesters with a Police and Crime Bill, the Tories rely on our division to maintain their power. This is why, when the Tories attack our freedom, we need to respond to this by ramping up struggle, and not being afraid. 

Resistance and collective struggle have been proven to be effective recently, such as through the student rent strikes which won a number of key concessions across the country. Action from staff at the University of Liverpool has also recently reduced the number of redundancies being made, although the strike continues to say ‘no’ to all job losses. Where staff are fighting back, we campaign to build student strikes in solidarity. We need democratic control over our universities – not an elite few running them like businesses, so that students and staff can democratically decide on the nature of the curriculum, on guest speakers and invitees, but also how to fund education, what to prioritise, and so on. A socialist movement to democratise our education is not violating free speech at all. It’s about fighting to reclaim universities from forces that restrict our rights.

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