Oxford professor lasts universities' 'dismal failures' on free speech

Oxford professor who needed security to protect her from radical trans rights mob blasts universities over ‘dismal failure’ on free speech that lets liberals shut down debate by accusing people they disagree with of ‘hate speech’

  • Professor Selina Todd, 47, no-platformed herself after lobbying by trans activists
  • The academic said universities had ‘dismally failed’ over freedom of speech
  • It came as Gavin Williamson announced plans to strengthen academic freedom

An Oxford University professor today accused college institutions of ‘dismal failure’  over freedom of speech – and claimed they cynically adopted diversity policies as a ‘badge’ for marketing.

Professor Selina Todd, 47, spoke as the government announced plans for a ‘free speech champion’ to ensure universities in England do not stifle it.

But academic Prof Todd, who teaches modern history at Oxford, questioned whether it would have any effect given recent events.

The professor – who was no-platformed herself after lobbying by trans activists over her views on gender- said universities saying they uphold free speech was incompatible with some diversity policies they had adopted.

She had to have a security guard at lectures when she was threatened by trans rights campaigners.

Prof Todd said: ‘I have at my institution a very good freedom of debate policy but it completely conflicts with our diversity policies because lobby groups like Stonewall actually pressurise institutions to write policies that say you cannot have debate on certain issues with the alleged claim being that by people like me articulating my view that sex is biological, it’s not assigned at birth, that I am doing literal harm to trans people in that case and that’s just not right.

Professor Selina Todd has blasted the idea of a Freedom Of Speech champion by government

‘Universities need to realise that they cannot on one hand have policies like that, which they may adopt quite cynically because they want the badge of Stonewall champion because in a marketplace they are diverse and liberal and all the rest of it, they cannot on the one hand uphold that and then claim they are upholding freedom of debate because I’m an example they are not doing that.

‘I am very prominent, I’m in a permanent position, I’m a professor, but the amount of support I’ve had from my institution has been laughable – they have never made a public statement in my defence.

‘I oppose the way the offence of hate speech being applied to other groups in the kind of liberal way that student unions and many other university staff members seek to do it and very often university policies uphold this,’ she added to Radio 4.

It came as the Education Secretary warned against a ‘chilling effect’ of ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring’ on university campuses as he unveiled tougher measures to protect free speech.

Gavin Williamson announced a series of proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England, including the appointment of a ‘free speech champion’ who will investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics.

A new free speech condition would be placed on universities for them to be registered in England and access public funding, and the Office for Students (OfS) regulator would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breached the condition.

Gavin Williamson announced a series of proposals to strengthen academic freedom

Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was snubbed by Oxford University students last year

No-platforming figures

Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was snubbed by Oxford University students over her links to the Windrush scandal.

Miss Rudd, who was Home Secretary when the scandal broke in 2018, had planned to deliver a speech encouraging young women to get involved in politics before International Women’s Day on Sunday.

But she arrived last night to an empty hall after Felicity Graham, president of an Oxford student society supporting the work of UN Women UK, which organised the event, was forced to cancel amid severe criticism from fellow members and students.

Nigel Farage has also previously hit out at the President of the Cambridge Union for saying he wouldn’t be trusted to speak on his own, but could be considered as ‘part of a panel’ on Brexit.

Union President Abdullah Shah said in 2019 he hasdtaken an approach to ‘no-platforming’ some speakers who “say controversial things for the sake of it”, adding he would not invite Nigel Farage to speak on a ‘solo platform’ but might be included in group panel discussions on Brexit.

Farage said the move demonstrated how students are not being allowed to “make up their minds” on social, economic and political issues. 

In September Caroline Farrow, a Catholic journalist and member of the Free Speech Union, was no-platformed by the University of Exeter Debating Society.

She was due to speak in a debate on whether prostitution should be legalised, but she was notified she had been disinvited because of her religious beliefs on a range of LGBT issues. 

She was later reinvited to speak. 

Individuals would be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffered loss from a breach of the free speech duties – such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted – under a new legal measure.

Mr Williamson said: ‘Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.

‘But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.’

Under the plans, universities would be legally required to actively promote free speech.

The Education Secretary would appoint a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ to the OfS board and they would be able to recommend the watchdog imposes fines on universities.

The Department for Education said the next steps for legislation will be set out in due course. 

In December, the University of Cambridge announced that its proposed statement on free speech would no longer require staff and students to be ‘respectful’ of differing views following an intervention from academics who said calling for respect could undermine academic freedom.

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the Government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.

‘In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.’

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: ‘Students’ unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas.

‘There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.’

She added: ‘We recognise this announcement as an opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education.’

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: ‘Free speech and academic freedom are essential to teaching and research. Universities and colleges have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.

‘We will ensure that the changes that result from today’s proposals reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law.’ 

But Prof Todd said she believed the initiative would have a limited effect.

She added: ‘I am not so sure about a free speech champion, I think these kind of tsars and champions tend to go nowhere and it can end up being a bit of a blunt instrument. But I am glad that they have acted.

‘Universities do have a legal right to uphold freedom of debate and they’ve dismally failed to do so in recent years and things have got a lot worse for academics and for students, many of whom get in touch with me anonymously to say how frightened they are to speak out.

‘One of the things I’m very pleased about in today’s white paper is that the government has set out its intention to extend the obligation to uphold freedom to debate to student unions as well as universities. But more action is needed because as I say universities have had this legal obligation for a long time since the 1980s and in my experience we have a culture of no debate which our employers are just no willing to challenge.’ 

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