The right to free speech originated as an attempt to limit the power of governments. It was about ensuring that the state couldn’t harass, imprison or shoot people for expressing their political philosophy. More recently this has developed into the argument that groups should have access to the means of expression. That’s why we have both public and private media, with the former giving everyone a shot at expressing their philosophy.
But in the last few years these arguments have been taken in a different direction. People have begun to use the principle of free speech to make claims not only about what the government can and can’t do but about what anyone can and can’t do. When historians at Oxford University publicly expressed their disagreement with a colleague in Theology who argued that British colonialism was good for the colonised, they were denounced by The Daily Mail for oppressing free speech.
This is free speech in an upside-down world where, instead of affording people protection from government, it obliges them to listen to others without criticising.
Now Jo Johnson has said that he will give a government regulatory body the power to sanction Universities if their Student Unions refuse to invite certain people to speak at public meetings. This is extraordinary. Student Unions are no more obliged to invite me, Jo Johnson or Nigel Farage to speak at their meetings than the Norwich City Supporters club. Although I’m sure the latter could benefit from me lecturing them on political theory. Similarly, the UEA SU may be daft not to invite certain speakers, but that should be decided by members of the Union. Asking the government to come in and take over is like inviting a hungry tiger into your house to get rid of a troublesome mouse. It certainly will get rid of the mouse. But it will be the appetiser. It’s you that will be the main course.
This confusion about free speech is being ruthlessly exploited for political gain, chiefly by the ‘alt-right’. They believe that some kinds of people are naturally suited to rule over others but know that this is a tough sell. So they try and turn people’s belief in equality against them. Rather than defend what they have to say, alt-righters provoke people into complaining about them and then demand their right to free speech. The sympathy this generates has allowed the alt-right to mobilise against liberal and democratic politics and the principle of free speech has been debased. It has mutated from the right of people to openly debate their collective interests to the right of individuals to shout obscenities at women that don’t agree with them (and to have the government force them to listen).
Now the mainstream of politics has followed suit. It is exploiting the principle of free speech for self-interested and tactical reasons. Jo Johnson is using the measures to raise his profile, but to also push through changes some in his Party have wanted for a long time but been unable to complete. Johnson is using the free speech issue as a way of justifying (while distracting from) the main course. The ‘Office for Students’, in undermining the unique status of Universities, will make it easier for commercial and for-profit providers to be given degree-awarding powers. You might or might not think thatís a great idea. But it’s certainly the sort of profound change in the organisation of our collective affairs that we ought to be using our free speech to debate and discuss.