by Anvee Bhutani
Wednesday, 18
January 2023
Campus Wars
15:45

The Left-wing case for a free speech tsar

Arif Ahmed can help students rediscover the core values of higher education
by Anvee Bhutani
Arif Ahmed, tipped to be the government’s free speech tsar. Credit: University of Cambridge.

In recent years, universities across this country have become synonymous with the idea of ‘woke’. In fact, a league table released this week claimed that over half of British universities peddle a ‘woke’ agenda to students, and that the worst offenders are the institutions considered our most esteemed. In an environment of ideological conformity, the promotion of free speech is increasingly treated as the preserve of the far-Right.

The recent announcement of a ‘free speech tsar’ (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) for universities by Rishi Sunak has been interpreted as a provocation amid an already rampaging culture war. The move has angered many Left-leaning and liberal students, who believe that it is a Trojan Horse for Right-wingers.


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But it is worth looking more closely at the role itself to see if these fears are justified. The notion of a free speech tsar has been floated since the original reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in 2021, and the role is expected to go to the Cambridge academic Arif Ahmed. According to the plans, the remit will include powers to ensure academics and visiting university speakers are not “cancelled” or censored for controversial views, particularly those which go against the social justice orthodoxies of their undergraduate audience. This is hardly radical — and it is something that we should welcome.

I am currently a student at Oxford. I would describe myself as Left-wing. I served as president of the Student Union and have been involved with activist groups, trade union efforts and lobby campaigns. Yet I strongly believe that preserving free speech as the lifeblood of a university is a value that should be accepted universally, irrespective of political affiliation.

In my three years at university, I have witnessed numerous speakers have their invitations rescinded, all while societies and students scrabble to release statements and sign petitions to have their platform removed.

For instance, former home secretary Amber Rudd was notably de-platformed by UN Women Oxford in 2020 for her perceived role in the Windrush scandal. That same year, historian Selina Todd was disinvited from a conference at Exeter College on the basis of her gender-critical views. In 2022, it was reported that in the previous year almost 200 speaker requests were rejected by UK universities and colleges, more than double the figure for the previous academic cycle. Even Left-wing public figures have been subject to attempted silencing by students.

This isn’t an exclusively Leftist problem, then. But there is no doubt that my side of the aisle has badly lost its way on freedom of speech, something that used to be a sacred principle, giving a voice to the voiceless and challenging the status quo.

Of course, no one has a right to speak anywhere they please — being invited to a university is a privilege, as is serving as a professor or researcher. But nor should universities pander to this pervasive culture of fear. An appointee, be it Ahmed or somebody else, to oversee breaches of official free speech policy would help us return to the first principles of higher education.

What’s more, most high-profile speakers already have large platforms online, so preventing them from appearing at a university is unlikely to achieve its intended outcome. Gone are the days when universities had a monopoly on contemporary discourse. The real losers in this scenario would be the students, who would miss out on a campus discussion likely to stimulate and provoke. Fostering a culture which protects free speech must be a priority in modern Britain. Bring on the tsar, I say.

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Paul S
Paul S
18 days ago

Arif has proven himself committed to free expression. I applaud his appointment and wish him well.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
18 days ago
Reply to  Paul S

Just to note, when i upvoted this comment, the number of upvotes stayed the same, indicating that someone had just downvoted it.
It’s scarcely believable than anyone would do so, and clearly without the courage or ability to challenge your straightforward comment by doing so themselves. That’s what we’re up against.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
18 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Don’t worry, I gave him two upvotes and you as well. I too find downvoting without stating points of disagreement aggravating.

Last edited 18 days ago by Aphrodite Rises
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
18 days ago

IDK. When I think free speech tsar, I think of censorship. But everything is upside down now so maybe it works. Can’t make it worse I guess.

B Emery
B Emery
18 days ago

Yes oxford student people. Don’t give up. It should be THE main priority in university. Good article.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
17 days ago

It would be interesting to know what the author did, when in a position of authority (“former president of the SU”) to stand up for free speech in the cases she has noted. I don’t want to assume she either stood by or supported these cancellations but if she did oppose the cancellations she seems very reticent to call out the people who did. It is the cowardice of people in power who are letting what would have been non-events (students protesting against a speaker) turn into national news headlines which makes the country look like a laughing stock.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
17 days ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I agree – I never heard her name as someone who spoke out forcefully for free speech when she was in a position of power.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
17 days ago

Orwell pointed out that if one censors one part of one’s thoughts it spreads throughout one’s thinking.
Britain fought WW2 for freedom, the middle class left seem to have forgotten. It would be interesting to know if any Left Wing Woke type person has ever listened to anyone who went through combat in WW2 as they explained the horrors of what they saw, smelt and did. The death of Orwell, Bevin, Tony Benn, , and Michael Foot, Callaghan plus others just shows how bereft is the Left of people endowed with the guiding principals of those who founded The Lbour Party.

Free Speech Act Now!
Free Speech Act Now!
16 days ago

A “free speech tsar” is just a way of controlling what can be said with a veneer of political response. There is nothing to stop them passing robust free speech legislation and enforcing it. Apart from not wanting to, of course.

Brigitte Lechner
Brigitte Lechner
15 days ago

A glass can be half empty as well as half full. A gate-keeper for hive mind authoritarianism could indeed control free speech. As long as there is a free speech culture such control will be called out. Problem solved.

Mike Cook
Mike Cook
16 days ago

I lost all respect for his suitability in this role when I discovered that In a blog written in February 2021, he opined that he was strongly against the requirement that universities adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, he considered that the definition obstructed a perfectly legitimate defence of Palestinian rights.
It does not. Anyone whose prejudices lead them to believe such a trope should not have been given this responsibility.

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
17 days ago

I will pray for him.

Bruce Crichton
Bruce Crichton
17 days ago

The Tsars were completely opposed to free speech so there is no case for a free speech tsar’.

Chris Twine
Chris Twine
17 days ago

Much of the no-platforming comes from the student unions, rather than the universities themselves. Thy are separate organisations with different charitable objectives, yet the bill lumps them together. Of course universities themselves have always been centres of left wing (see: 1968) or non-mainstream opinion (see: The Reformation!) so this really is pearl-clutching by the government. Most students really don’t care about this bit of the culture war, but makes great headlines. So this is more about an easy target for a bit of culture warring from an under-siege government.

David Harris
David Harris
16 days ago
Reply to  Chris Twine

And yet lecturers have been forced out through student activities. So university administrations do have a responsibility to ensure freedom of speech.