Universities and Freedom of Speech | Alex Tant-Brown

After protestors targeted a lecturer for her perceived wrong views, the University of Sussex has become the latest centre for the debate around freedom of speech on university campuses. What did  Professor Kathleen Stock purportedly do wrong? She merely questioned the idea that men who feel like women should have automatic access to female-only spaces like toilets, changing rooms and sports teams. 

There should be two points that are noted before I begin on freedom of speech on university campuses. Firstly, the notion that Professor Stock is in the minority with her beliefs is ludicrous, there was a recent poll by YouGov which demonstrated that the majority of those polled agreed with Professor Stock, that those who had not medically transitioned should be allowed to use these facilities. Whilst holding a majoritarian view, why should Professor Stock be sacked for simply holding her own viewpoint. It’s not as if she is an amateur, she is an expert in analytic philosophy and has received an OBE for her services to higher education

Secondly, if gender and biological sex are separate, and gender identity is a social construct, there surely exists no objective truth in this debate. There is nothing that is objectively right or wrong within social sciences, there does exist circumstances that complicate the objective viewpoint, as such one can only be subjective when considering these problems. Therefore, how can an academic be sacked for merely presenting a subjective viewpoint on a subjective topic?

Onto freedom of speech, Professor Stock is correct when she says that “Universities aren’t places where students should just expect to hear their own thoughts reflected back at them…Arguments should be met by arguments and evidence by evidence, not intimidation or aggression.” Universities should be at the forefront of free academic debate; university should act as the place where all viewpoints can be brought to the table and held in the court of public opinion. The question ‘Why?’ should be the most used question in higher education, university is not simply about going to a new place for three years and having a good time, it is about learning; and freedom of speech underpins this learning. 

Should universities limit some forms of speech though? No, they should not. How can we as a society progress, if we simply shut down debate that is uncomfortable for us to participate in? We cannot. And as a result we should allow for more open debate of academic viewpoints. If someone states a viewpoint that you find distasteful, then you should question why they hold that viewpoint, and engage with them. Understand their point of view, and only then can you begin to convince them of your own. Quite simply, if we continue down this illiberal pursuit of liberty, it will simply lead to a factionalised society in which no one leaves their own echo chamber.

Returning to Sussex, and Professor Stock, the departing Vice-Chancellor Adam Tickell (soon to be Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham) has backed Professor Stock and has refused to sack her. In fact, he has vowed to crack down on what he perceives to be the prevention of the untrammelled right of academics to freely express themselves. He is right to do this, these protestors have gone beyond simply exercising their own freedom of speech; they have crossed the line from simply freely expressing a viewpoint that Professor Stock is wrong, they have instead strayed into the dark realms of trying to prevent her living her life by getting her sacked. 

It is important to remember that when these incidents occur, as I am sure they will do in the future, that at the centre of it is a person; a person who, as a result of their profession, is in the public eye, this person may still have children to feed, a family to look after, and bills to pay. These protestors must surely realise that there is the real danger that by pursuing contract termination, it could viably not only ruin one person’s career but also a whole family dynamic. More pertinently if universities accept these protestations, and do terminate an academics contract for a view that is freely espoused, and that does not call for violence, intimidation or criminality, then the freedom to speak is under serious threat.

Whilst the case of Professor Stock is a win for freedom of speech in the short term, the fact that these protestors are continuing to call for her sacking is not. In ensuring freedom of speech one must be prepared to dislike a differing viewpoint, but they must also be prepared to defend their own. I will conclude with a quote that is often misattributed to Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. 

Quote: Should universities limit some forms of speech though? No, they should not.

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