The Free-Speech Hypocrisy of Spiked

A few years ago, a little-known online magazine called Spiked published a league table of universities allegedly threatening free speech. I was surprised to see my own university ranked amongst the worst offenders. On closer inspection the criteria used were questionable, to put it mildly. Naively, I wrote the article below and sent it to Spiked, believing that they were a normal media outlet. I have been investigating their activities more recently and discovered that they are more like the mouthpiece for a cult. That did not prevent respectable mainstream media, including the Guardian, from reprinting their propaganda as it if it came from a trustworthy source.

A key element of their campaigning is that “no platforming” is a threat to free speech. With that in mind, I invite you to read their email response to the article below:

Unfortunately, while it is an interesting piece, I don’t think it’s something we could really publish on spiked, not least because it runs counter to spiked’s own project, the Free Speech University Rankings. While we appreciate that not everyone will agree with our criteria for assessing free speech in universities, we believe the criteria to be fair and robust.

Tim Black, Spiked

Why Universities Should Encourage Self-Censorship

Seeing the University of the West of England (UWE) where I work at the bottom of Spiked’s free speech ranking made me reflect on what free speech means in higher education and where it might be under threat.  I recall two potential threats to my own freedom to express and offend during my time at UWE.  A colleague once told me an article I was planning to write would offend a section of a government department he was involved in sensitive negotiations with.  I heard him out and appreciated his concerns but explained that we a contract of employment guaranteeing academic freedom.  If we start imposing self-censorship for commercial reasons, we will lose that freedom.  I published and no one seemed to damn me for it.

On another occasion a senior manager intimated in that ambiguously deniable manner of senior managers that I might want to refrain from offending government departments that give us research contracts.  My head of department said: “that is an outrageous thing for any academic to say” and I have taken that as my green light ever since.  My forthcoming book, Urban Transport Without the Hot Air, could offend the Department for Transport, the bus industry, the rail industry and much of the urban design profession, all of whom we have worked with and applied for money with or from in the past.

One factor in UWE’s ranking as a suppressor of free speech was a student union ban on advertising by payday loan companies, which raises some interesting questions about the definition of free speech.  There is an intrinsic tension in the concept of freedom, between the freedom to act and the freedom from the actions of people or organisations with the power to exploit others.  In classifying commercial advertising as ‘free speech’, the authors of that league have erred too far towards the freedom to, whilst ignoring the freedom from exploitation.

Freedom of speech has never been, and arguably can never, be absolute.  Looking elsewhere on the table, I would agree that a blanket ban on talks by Israeli academics is an unwarranted attack on free speech, but where violent conflict is involved the situation becomes less clear.  I don’t often agree with Teresa May, but stopping jihadists and suicide bombers making their case on British campuses seems sensible to me.  If we accept that argument, should we also allow people to advocate Israel’s right to bomb Palestinian residential areas?  At what point a nationalist argument becomes incitement to racial hatred or a religious fanatic crosses a line threatening gays or transsexuals is difficult to judge.  There are risks in both directions; either way threatens somebody’s freedom.

Another black mark on the league table was awarded to UWE for its ban on ‘transphobic propaganda’.  I can’t say I’ve ever noticed anyone scrutinising our publications for diatribes against transsexuals.  This type of policy is really an appeal to self-censorship.  Whereas self-censorship towards terrorists, governments or commercial interests is dangerous and must be resisted, self-censorship to avoid offending vulnerable people is an essential element of human decency.  All of us self-censor at times, whether it is the unwanted Christmas present we accept with good grace or the condemnation of a foreign custom we keep to ourselves when travelling through another country.  A society with no self-censorship would be fractious, brutal and inhuman.

All employing organisations have their faults but I don’t agree with your assessment of free speech at UWE.  I could never have written such a provocative book when I worked in the private sector.  The quiet suggestions that I should avoid biting the hand that feeds us would have come with a P45.  Commercial confidentiality is a ready-made excuse for private companies to avoid the scrutiny we expect of public bodies.  Commercialisation and privatisation of higher education pose much greater threats to free speech than student unions or diversity policies.