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Free Speech tsar: I will be ‘viewpoint-neutral’

New free speech boss Arif Ahmed

October 9, 2023 - 1:00pm

Britain’s new free speech chief has promised a “broadly viewpoint-neutral approach” to speech rights on campus. In remarks delivered to King’s College London today, Arif Ahmed, now head of the Office for Students (OfS), said that his office would “protect the lawful speech rights of speakers at universities — students, staff, visiting speakers – independently of the viewpoint that they are expressing”.

 “You can argue that Britain is fundamentally racist — or that it never was,” he said. “You can speak or write as a Marxist, a postcolonial theorist, a gender-critical feminist, or anything else — if you do it within the law.” 

Ahmed went on to note that he would not take sides in the “culture war”, adding that his was “not a partisan role” so that free speech could be promoted and protected within the law. The free speech tsar expressed concerns that the UK had “fallen significantly” in an international index ranking academic freedom in the last 10 years, adding that the country now ranked sixtieth in the world. But, he added, “this was not the worst of it”. “When an institution fails to protect, or punishes, legal speech, the effect goes well beyond the speaker. It casts a penumbra of silence. This is the chilling effect.” 

Referring to a survey that found that one in every seven students in England felt unable to freely express their own views at university, Ahmed questioned: “in what world is 14% an acceptably low figure?” “Free speech is — and always has been — a counter-majoritarian principle,” he said, “it is literally there to protect minorities.” Ahmed went on to draw an analogy between self-censorship only affecting a minority and healthcare. “Saying it is okay that self-censorship only affects a minority is like saying it is okay that poor healthcare only affects people who are unwell.”

Ahmed declared that it “is the powerless and the marginalised who benefit most from freedom of speech”. Referring to the American Civil Rights movement, the free speech chief noted how “censorship was their opponents’ most convenient weapon”, but it was “free speech” that gave “the poor a chance to voice their concerns and ultimately to influence public policy to their benefit”.

Discussing how Britain is “a more open, tolerant and welcoming place for all people than it was 50 years ago”, Ahmed warned that the free speech climate in Britain today is deteriorating. “There are now persistent and widespread concerns that many in higher education are being silenced, either by the activity of the university or by its inactivity,” he said. “And that silencing may fall disproportionately on those who are most vulnerable.”

In the run-up to the speech, the new director announced that he had been in “listening mode”, promising a consultation on how best to promote and protect free expression on campus. His appointment by the Government earlier this year arrived after protests surrounding feminist professor Kathleen Stock’s talk to the Oxford Union over her views on gender identity. It also follows a spate of high-profile no-platforming incidents, which Ahmed has sought to address. In comments to the BBC, he added that he would defend the right to peaceful protest, but made a distinction between peaceful and disruptive demonstrations.

“Tolerance for disagreement is a public good,” Ahmed said today. “By promoting the value of free speech […] our universities are helping not only their own students but also everyone else. That is why this duty falls, and ought to fall, upon all of them.”


is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

Refreshing take for sure and reason for optimism. The fact that Britain has a free speech tsar in the first place is discouraging.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
9 months ago

Peaceful protest – fine. But once the line is crossed and the abuse flows and then violence ensues the perpetrators need identifying and then, if students, sending down. Make this clear and then a few cases will reduce the really bad abuse from students.
Now; it does, to me, look like the “peaceful protesters” are not all from within the student body. For these then we do have laws on inciting violence and hatred in place and make a few examples with arrests and the numbers involved will reduce.
The situation we have ended up in of, basically, tolerating abuse, verbal and physical, really does need to end. It helps no one.

Linda M Brown
Linda M Brown
9 months ago

We are totally f**k*d; anyone who thinks a free speech tsar will actually protect free speech has little understanding of history or human nature. It will become the `allowed’ speech tsar despite the platitudes.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Linda M Brown

This. No matter how well-intentioned the individual in question or the government at the time, it always ends up this way. Relying on a government agency to safeguard free speech is like assigning the fox to guard the hen house.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago

The notion of a free speech tsar seems like an oxymoron to me. Free speech isn’t something that an all-powerful government deigns to graciously provide its hapless subjects, but a fundamental human right that government has no business infringing. Perhaps that’s just an American viewpoint though. It’s always nice to hear someone defending free speech and confronting the problems of ideological conformity in academia, but this strikes me as a band aid on a bullet wound. If it were just the professors and the institutions that were driving the suppression of free speech, that would be one thing, but that’s not the case. As often as not, it’s the students and not the professors who drive this phenomenon in western universities. The fact that we have a generation of people who value their ‘safe spaces’ and their ‘feelings’ more than their freedoms is not going to be fixed by appointing some government official to play watchdog. In America, we used to be able to count on the ACLU to do this, but not so much these days as they’ve become as ideological and political as everything else.

David B
David B
9 months ago

Talks a good talk, but from the article I only gleaned that he was head of the Office for Students. Beyond stern letters to Vice-Chancellors, what can he actually do to further his laudable aims?

Hardly a Tsar, more a Knight of the Order of St Michael the Archangel?

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Good news, but what actual powers will he have. And how will he draw the line between free speech, and what some academics see as “free expression” – blocking entrances, shouting people down, shaming those who wish to attend, letting off fire alarms and the rest.

Duane M
Duane M
9 months ago

He only promises to protect the “lawful speech rights”. I wonder how far that goes, in a country that lacks a bill of rights. But more obviously, as others have noted, it is oxymoronic to appoint a bureaucrat as protector of free speech. Or any other liberty. Bureaucrats, by nature, operate according to rule-books and boundaries.

Jon
Jon
9 months ago

This is upside down. Free speech should be the default, the natural condition with the courts as the last resort for pro-free speech to be protected. But such is not reality.

rob drummond
rob drummond
9 months ago
Reply to  Jon

but – as you say, it isnt

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

His remit should be wider, meaning the state should allocate a number of cultural allies to help him as this is an extremely violent younger generation and we’ve seen what can transpire in the Middle East.