Free speech is arguably the most important value for universities to uphold. As Steven Pinker points out in an essay aptly tilted Why Free Speech is Fundamental, “the very thing we’re doing when we ask whether free speech is fundamental—exchanging and evaluating ideas—presupposes that we have the right to exchange and evaluate ideas.” Free speech serves as both an error-correction mechanism and a conflict-resolution mechanism: it allows us to filter out bad ideas by bringing them under the lens of public scrutiny, and allows us to resolve our disagreements through verbal arguments, rather than physical confrontations. The law sensibly carves out exceptions to the notion of unadulterated free speech (such as for fraud, libel, perjury, divulging state secrets and incitement to violence). But outside these strictly defined cases, universities should provide the maximum freedom for individuals to explore, debate and challenge conflicting perspectives.
Yet the ideal of free speech at university finds itself constantly in peril. Many individuals and organisations (both in and outside the academy) remain conspicuously unconvinced about the value of robust, open debate. They would prefer to see the list of exceptions extended far beyond those carefully circumscribed by law, and act in various ways to stifle the free exchange of ideas on campus. Such actors oppose giving individuals the maximum freedom to pursue their academic goals, but instead favour a much more limited freedom, typically one designed to minimise transgressions of their side’s sacred values. Consequently, free speech at university continues to face a variety of threats, as we see in the news on an almost weekly basis. At the same time, however, a number of proposals have been made for how to counteract these threats. And with the rising prominence of organisations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Heterodox Academy and Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF), there is now a burgeoning social movement behind the cause of free speech on campus.
Where do things currently stand? This two-part essay attempts to provide an answer. Part 1 outlines the major threats to free speech at university, while Part 2 discusses some proposals for how to counteract them. The essay focuses on the UK and the US––two countries that are of particular interest due to the role model status of their elite universities, which continue to dominate the international rankings. Note that, although one may draw a distinction between free speech on the one hand and academic freedom on the other, for the purpose of this essay the two will be treated as part of the same general phenomenon.
The first major threat to free speech at university comes in the form of speech codes, speech guidelines, free speech zones and other official rules that pre-empt what members of the university can and can’t say, and sometimes even where they are allowed to assemble. Such rules are typically laid down by the university administration itself, but may also be imposed by students’ unions, which often wield disproportionate administrative power on campus. Between 2015 and 2018, the online magazine Spiked tracked the prevalence of speech guidelines at UK universities via its annual Free Speech University Rankings. In 2018, the magazine found that “over 50 per cent of universities and students’ unions placed explicit restrictions on speech, while a further 40 per cent chilled speech through excessive regulation.” For example, the University of Nottingham’s students’ union’s policy reportedly states that “the religious sensibilities of the union’s members should be respected,” while Leeds Beckett, Newcastle University and Imperial College all ban “transphobic propaganda,” which includes “written materials, graffiti, music or speeches.”
In the US, FIRE tracks the prevalence of speech codes and free speech zones at universities via its own annual rankings. In 2019, the organisation found that “28.5% of surveyed colleges maintain at least one severely restrictive policy” and that the majority of institutions surveyed maintain policies that constitute “clear restrictions on a more narrow area of expression,” or that, “by virtue of vague wording, could too easily be applied to restrict protected expression.” In one year, FIRE apparently uncovered a restriction on “inappropriately directed laughter.” Similarly, the organisation has found that approximately 1 in 10 universities maintain a free speech zone, which means that they confine demonstrations and other expressive activities to a certain area of campus––one which is usually small and/or out of the way.
Surveys of students’ attitudes to free speech on campus paint a somewhat mixed picture. For example, a large Gallup survey conducted in 2017 on behalf of the Knight Foundation, asked students whether colleges should create “a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech” or “an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech.” A large majority of respondents––70%––opted for “an open learning environment.” However, when students are asked other questions, such as whether specific kinds of potentially offensive speech should be restricted, they often express much lower levels of support for free speech. Likewise, a 2016 survey carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute asked UK students whether their university should “focus on ensuring unlimited free speech on campus” or “should ensure that all students are protected from discrimination.” Only 27% of respondents opted for the former, while 37% opted for the latter (the remainder said they didn’t know, couldn’t decide or that the university should not get involved in such matters).
The second major threat to free speech at university is no-platforming, that is, pre-emptive policies or targeted actions that prevent “controversial” speakers from giving talks on campus. According to Spiked, 37% of students’ unions in the UK maintain a No Platform policy, which prohibits individuals from certain designated organisations from speaking at events hosted by the students’ union. (Although note that the organisations to which the No Platform policy applies are currently limited to three far-right and three Islamist groups.) More concerning, perhaps, are the regular demands for speakers to be disinvited once an invitation has been extended, or the clamorous protests that frequently erupt at the venues where speakers are scheduled to appear.
AFAF maintains a so-called Banned List, comprising speakers who have been successfully or unsuccessfully no-platformed at UK universities. One particularly ironic example concerns Emma Fox, an extremism expert whose planned talk to the University of Bristol’s Free Speech Society had to be cancelled “on security grounds” early this year, following letters of protest and threats of demonstrations from the students’ union and the Islamic Society. Another telling example involves the journalists Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neil, who, in 2014, were invited to debate the motion This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All at an event hosted by a pro-life society at Oxford. However, following sustained pressure from student activists, including accusations that the event promoted “really shitty anti-choice rhetoric and probs some cissexism,” the debate had to be called off.
In the US, FIRE maintains a rigorously catalogued Disinvitation Database, comprising incidents of successful or unsuccessful no-platforming at US universities. As of November 2019, the database lists 438 cases, of which a sizable majority––65%––are from the year 2010 or later. Indeed, there has been a noticeable upward trend in the number of disinvitation attempts since the early 2000s (see chart below). Over the full time period for which data are available, just under half of attempts––47%––were successful, but there has been no discernible trend in this proportion over time. It is noteworthy that more than twice as many disinvitation attempts have come “from the left” of the speaker as have come “from the right” of the speaker. (Although Professor Jeffrey Sachs argues that this may be explained, at least in part, by undercounting at religious colleges).
Among the most prominent cases of no-platforming in the US was Charles Murray’s attempt to speak at Middlebury College in 2017. As soon as Murray took the stage, student activists in the audience began booing and heckling. When it became clear that the activists had no intention of letting him speak, the discussion was moved to another location and broadcast via livestream. After it had finished, Murray was escorted outside by a Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger, but the pair were immediately set upon by a group of activists. During the scuffle, one of the activists violently tugged Stanger’s hair, leaving her hospitalised with a case of whiplash. Another case of no-platforming that received widespread media attention was Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled talk at UC Berkeley earlier that same year. Approximately 1,500 people assembled outside the venue to protest. They were then joined by an additional 150 black bloc activists. These masked individuals proceeded to start fires, set off fireworks and attack members of the crowd, leading to the cancellation of the talk, as well as $100,000 in property damage. One of those attacked was a Syrian Muslim student, who was apparently told, “You look like a Nazi,” before being hit with a rod.
The third major threat to free speech at universities is bullying (or mobbing) of academics by student activists, other academics and university administrators. Such bullying takes a variety of forms, including letters of mass denunciation, extended campaigns of protest and intimidation, and unscrupulous investigations carried out by kangaroo courts. The aim of all these tactics is the same: to engender formal or informal sanctions against the putative transgressor. As I noted in a recent article, “open letters signed by academics could be safely dismissed were it not for the fact that the signatories often get exactly what they want. The target does get investigated or fired; his article does get retracted from an academic journal.” Last December, I myself was the subject of a censorious open letter, which accused me of “racist pseudoscience” and called for “an investigation into the appointment process that led to the award of [my] fellowship.” (I was subsequently fired from St Edmund’s College.) The letter was signed by 586 academics, mostly from the humanities and qualitative social sciences. One of the signatories later explained that she and her fellow signatories had been qualified to sign it because “most of us have some specialism within … critical race theory.”
I am by no means the only person to have been singled out for denunciation in this way. In fact, I recently compiled a list of nineteen open letters or petitions targeting specific individuals or small groups of academics. One of those targeted was Professor Nigel Biggar at the University of Oxford, who became the subject of two open letters in 2017, following the launch of his Ethics and Empire research project. Upon first learning of the project, one prominent critic––who became a signatory to the second open letter––wrote: “OMG this is serious shit … We need to SHUT THIS DOWN.” That same critic later dismissed letters to the Times defending Biggar as, “More racist shite including arse-licking internalised racism from the colonised.” To its credit, the University of Oxford made no attempt to punish Biggar, and even issued a statement highlighting the “fundamental importance” of academic freedom. However, letters of mass denunciation need not prompt any formal sanctions in order to have a chilling effect on research and dialogue. Biggar now reportedly holds his seminars in private, and has been told by junior colleagues that they will only take part in his project “as long as their name appears nowhere, because they fear that association with [him] will damage their careers.”
As an amusing aside, two weeks before the open letter against me was sent to the newspapers, both Professor Biggar and I appeared on a BBC radio programme about the lack of viewpoint diversity in British academia. (Ironically, I had been invited on to discuss a report I wrote for the Adam Smith Institute dealing with the adverse consequences of ideological homogeneity.) It transpired on the programme that the producers had reached out to a number of the academics who signed the petitions against Professor Biggar, but only one had agreed to participate. The others, it emerged, felt that the programme was “legitimising a false premise.” Apparently, the notion that British academia might lack viewpoint diversity is so obviously false that it is not even worth “legitimising” through debate.
In the US, perhaps the most infamous case of bullying is the saga involving Professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying at Evergreen State College. Every year since the 1970s, the university had held a so-called Day of Absence, in which non-white students and faculty would voluntarily meet off campus to discuss issues related to racial inequality. However, in 2017, it was decided that the tradition should be reversed, and that white students and faculty should voluntarily leave the campus, while discussions among non-white students and faculty took place on site. The trouble began when Professor Weinstein sent out a series of emails criticising this change in format, as well as other changes to teaching arrangements that had been proposed by the Evergreen Equity Council. Student activists at the college then began protesting, and Weinstein’s allegedly “racist” comments were cited among their grievances. The protests soon got out of hand, and Weinstein was told that his safety on campus could no longer be guaranteed. (At one stage, marauding gangs of baseball bat wielding activists reportedly caused $10,000 worth of property damage.) Weinstein and his wife, Heying, were eventually forced to leave the College––where they’d taught for nearly fifteen years––after reaching a settlement for $500,000.
There have been too many other cases of bullying to discuss them all, but––among those that have occurred in recent years––the following stand out as particularly noteworthy. Yale Professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis were subjected to threatening graffiti, raucous protests and vicious personal invective after the latter penned an email suggesting that students were perhaps old enough to choose their own Halloween costumes. Following his involvement in the much publicised Grievance Studies Affair, Professor Peter Boghossian of Portland State University was subjected to a six month investigation for supposedly engaging in “research misconduct.” And based on allegations that she is “transphobic,” Reading Law Professor Rosa Freedman has been subjected to such unhinged abuse (including having her office door covered in urine) that she has been forced to install a panic alarm, and is now escorted around campus by chaperones. Many older––but no less disturbing––cases are documented in books such as Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger and The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.
More systematic evidence of the extent of bullying in academia can be gleaned from two recent surveys carried out by Professor Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson at the University of Lincoln. These scholars devised a detailed questionnaire covering various aspects of academic freedom, which they sent to academics across the EU, as well as to members of the University and College Union (the union representing UK academics). They obtained over 4,000 responses from EU academics, and approximately 2,300 from UCU members. One of the questions in their survey asked whether the respondent had ever been subjected to “bullying by academic colleagues” because of the academic views he or she held. Alarmingly, 14.1% of EU academics and 23.1% of UCU members admitted that they had. The figure for UCU members is particularly astonishing, given that only 5.8% of those in the sample identified as right of centre (a further 10.5% identified as centrist), and one would presumably expect such individuals to be more at risk of bullying for holding certain academic views.
Interestingly, when the political scientist Sam Abrams asked a sample of nearly 900 US academics whether they favoured “a positive learning environment for all students that prohibits certain expressions of speech” or “an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech,” he found that a large majority of them––69%––favoured the latter. While the same caveats apply to this survey as apply to the student surveys (i.e. that measured support for free speech may vary depending on the content and phrasing of the question), Abrams’ finding suggests that professorial opposition to free speech on campus is concentrated among a small but rather vocal minority of activist academics.
Attacks by External Actors
The fourth major threat to free speech at universities is harassment, intimidation or abuse of academics by those operating outside the academy. As Jeffrey Sachs notes in a recent article, most attacks in this category come from the political right. By contrast, the vast majority of attacks by those operating inside the academy come from the political left. The reason for this disparity is simple: individuals with left-wing or liberal views are massively overrepresented among both faculty and administrators, whereas the views of the general population are quite evenly split. All else being equal, therefore, academics are more likely to say something that offends the sensibilities of members of the public who are right-wing or conservative than they are to say something that offends the sensibilities of those who are left-wing or liberal.
As one might expect, not only do left- versus right-wing attacks on academics tend to come from different sources (in versus outside the academy), but they also tend be provoked by different sorts of infraction. Although I am not aware of any systematic analysis of the phenomenon, anecdotal evidence suggests that left-wing attacks occur when academics take politically incorrect stances on sex, race, transgender, immigration, Islam, colonialism, or any other issue where there is a clear victim/oppressor narrative. By contrast, right-wing attacks occur when academics take stances that threaten religious sacred values; when they conduct research on topics like labour unions or climate change; or when they express support for controversial left-wing activist groups (such as Antifa, Black Lives Matter or various pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli groups). Of course, the distinction is not always perfectly clear-cut, and some academics––such as Peter Singer and Francesca Minerva––have found themselves in the crosshairs of both disability rights advocates and conservative Christians.
As Sachs notes, one of several tactics that Republican activists have used to harass academics of whom they disapprove is filing open records requests. These onerous legal actions require their targets, or their targets’ lawyers, to sift through vast amounts of information, and may therefore serve as a significant deterrent to carrying out research on the relevant topics. Back in 2010, the climatologist Michael Mann was famously targeted with a Civil Investigative Demand by the then Virginia Attorney General, in an attempt to obtain documents relating to Mann’s research and professional correspondence. (However, the demand was rejected by a judge for failure to state sufficient cause, and then again––after appeal––by the Virginia Supreme Court.) Republican activists have also gone after academics for their behaviour on social media. In one particularly ridiculous case, Professor Ari Kohen of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received a threatening phone call from Representative Jeff Fortenberry’s chief of staff because he had liked a photo on Facebook, depicting a poster of Fortenberry that had been vandalised with some googly eyes and the replacement of the letter O with the letter A.
The fifth major threat to free speech at universities is formal sanctions imposed on academics by department heads, university administrators and academic journals. These may include: being suspended, terminated, denied promotion, not re-appointed or pressured to “resign”; having one’s teaching or administrative responsibilities removed; having one’s books, journal articles or public lectures cancelled for non-academic reasons; and being told to take mandatory “sensitivity training”. Let us consider a few examples.
In 2014, Professor Thomas Doherty of the University of Warwick, a longstanding critic of the marketization of higher education, was suspended for nine months for, among other things, “inappropriate sighing,” “making ironic comments” and “projecting negative body language.” Also in 2014, Professor Francis Schmidt of Bergen Community College was suspended without pay after he posted a photo of his seven-year-old daughter wearing a Game of Thrones T-shirt that featured the slogan “I will take what is mine with fire & blood.” The reason for Schmidt’s suspension was that, according to university administrators, the word fire could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.” Back in 2011, Professor William Crenshaw was fired from Erskine College, apparently due to pressure from religious traditionalists, because he had made statements such as, “Any college that lets theology trump fact is not a college; it is an institution of indoctrination.” (Crenshaw, who had tenure at the time of his dismissal, later won a large financial settlement.)
Furthermore, in 2018, Professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania Law School criticised affirmative action, and stated that she had “rarely” seen black students graduate in the top half of the class, during an interview with Professor Glenn Loury. Following a petition signed by a large number of students and alumni, the Dean of the Law School announced that Wax would no longer be allowed to teach mandatory first-year courses. The year before, in 2017, Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University published an article entitled “The Case for Colonialism” in the journal Third World Quarterly. Following two separate petitions, signed by a total of over 18,000 people, the journal publisher announced that––although an investigation “clearly demonstrated” that Gilley’s article had gone through double-blind peer review––it was being withdrawn because the journal editor had “received serious and credible threats of personal violence.” Also in 2017, Professor Reginald Robinson of Howard University was investigated for “sexual harassment” after two students complained about a hypothetical exam question in which a client alleges improper touching during a bikini wax. The investigation lasted for more than a year, and resulted in Robinson being required to undergo sensitivity training, as well as classroom observation and prior administrative review of future test questions.
How frequent are these kinds of incidents overall? Jeffrey Sachs recently compiled a database––for the years 2000–2019––of American academics who have been fired, forced to resign or demoted/denied promotion because of speech that was “perceived by critics as political.” He is careful to point out that the database is a “work in progress,” and that years “prior to 2015 are especially likely to be incomplete.” Nonetheless, his work provides a valuable insight into the scale of politically motivated terminations and demotions at US universities. As of November 2019, the database lists 74 cases, of which all except one are from the year 2010 or later (although note that this may be due to missing data in earlier years). 53 of the cases involve academics being fired; 13 involve academics being forced to resign; and the remaining 8 involve academics being demoted or denied promotion. Interestingly, 39 cases involve academics being sanctioned for speech perceived as left-wing, whereas 29 involve academics being sanctioned for speech perceived as right-wing. Taking into account the proportions of academics who identify as liberal and conservative, respectively, these figures suggest that academics on the right are about 4.5 times more likely to be sanctioned for political speech than their counterparts on the left.
Of course, political activists––whether on the left or the right––are not the only actors who try to pressure universities into censoring speech they don’t like. In recent years, evidence has emerged of foreign governments engaging in precisely the same activity. One such government for which there is particularly widespread evidence of interference is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the government of China. In November, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons published a report dealing with the influence of autocracies on UK academia, which uncovered “alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence.” One academic quoted in the report, Professor Steve Tsang of SOAS, said he had knowledge that a pro-vice chancellor at a British university “was spoken to by someone in the Chinese embassy and as a result he stood a speaker who was already invited down.” Similarly, according to a recent story in The Sunday Times, academics at the University of Nottingham were pressured by managers to cancel events relating to Tibet and Taiwan, “after complaints from Chinese officials.” The reason why universities might be so willing to do the bidding of Chinese officials is fairly obvious: many of them are reliant on income from Chinese students and research grants. (In the year 2017/2018, for example, more than 1 out of every 5 international students was Chinese.)
The imposition of formal sanctions on academics cannot be blamed solely on craven or overzealous administrators: such actions are sometimes the result of administrators effectuating legal obligations that were foisted on them by obtrusive government policies. One government policy that has arguably curtailed academic freedom in the US is Title IX. Passed in 1972, the Act was originally intended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in all federally funded education programs. However, when the US Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter in 2011, the Act acquired a somewhat new emphasis, specifically to address the issue of sexual harassment on college campuses. This shift in emphasis had a number of adverse consequences, which are documented in a 2016 report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In particular, it led to the adoption of an overly broad definition of sexual harassment that, in the words of the AAUP’s report, “conflates conduct and speech.”
Indeed, the AAUP’s report reviews a number of cases in which academics’ free speech rights were infringed because they had said or done something that conflicted with their universities’ Title IX obligations. One of the more well-known cases concerns Professor Laura Kipnis, who was subjected to a three-month investigation at Northwestern University after two students filed Title IX complaints against her in 2015. Kipnis’ supposed infraction was to have written an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that criticised universities’ sexual harassment guidelines, and referred to an on-going situation at Northwestern involving a professor who had been accused of sexual harassment. Although Kipnis escaped any formal sanctions (the investigation exonerated her), others have not been so lucky. In 2014, Professor Teresa Buchanan was fired from Louisiana State University on grounds of “sexual harassment,” after some students complained about her use of profanity and other “salty language” in class. (Buchanan admits that she is “blunt,” but claims that her approach was simply designed to prepare students for the real world.) As a result of widespread criticism from organisations like FIRE and the AAUP––along with a change of presidential administration––the Department of Education rescinded its 2011 Dear Colleague Letter in 2017. New Title IX regulations are currently being finalised.
One government policy that has arguably curtailed academic freedom in the UK is the so-called Prevent duty. This is a legal obligation in the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA), which requires schools, universities and some other institutions to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” Effectuating the Prevent duty may involve regulating or even banning certain activities, as well as referring at risk individuals to the appropriate authorities. The Prevent duty has been heavily criticised on a number of grounds, including that it is tantamount to spying, and that it stigmatises law-abiding Muslims. Most important in the present context, it is said to have stymied free speech and academic freedom. (Although note that the legal scholars Steven Greer and Lindsey Bell have put forward a contrary perspective, noting––among other things––that the CTSA also requires institutions to have “particular regard” to the “duty to ensure freedom of speech” and to the “importance of academic freedom.”)
What evidence has been cited against Prevent? To begin with, there are numerous anecdotal reports of students and academics self-censoring for fear that they might fall afoul of their universities’ Prevent policies. What’s more, there are specific cases of academic events being cancelled, and individual scholars being targeted, because they were deemed to have contravened such policies. In one case from 2015, a Staffordshire University student named Mohammed Umar Farooq was formally questioned about his attitudes to ISIS and Al-Qaeda after he was found reading a book titled Terrorism Studies in the university library. As it turned out, Farooq had simply been studying for his master’s degree in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security. In another case from 2017, officials at Cambridge University reportedly threatened to shut down a panel event hosted by the Palestinian Society, unless they agreed to replace the panel’s proposed chair with the university’s Director of Communications. A university spokesperson later explained that “a neutral chair was provided to ensure that all sides were represented.”
According to figures published by the Office for Students (a non-departmental public body that regulates higher education in England), of roughly 62,000 event requests made during the academic year 2017–18, over 2,000 were affected by Prevent. Most of these were approved with conditions attached, such as “putting in place experienced chairs” (as in the case of the Cambridge event) or “having senior staff present.” However, 53 requests were rejected altogether. More information would be needed to determine how many of these 53 posed a genuine risk of fomenting terrorism (and one may contest whether this is something universities should be monitoring in the first place), but it is clear that the number of events that have been affected by Prevent is non-trivial. In January of this year, the government announced that there would be an independent review of the Prevent duty, although this too has been criticised for lack of impartiality.
The sixth major threat to free speech at universities is self-censorship by students and academics. While not technically an infringement of free speech, self-censorship is indicative of an atmosphere in which costly social sanctions are levelled against those who expresses controversial beliefs. Moreover, a single act of self-censorship may give rise to additional acts via the so-called spiral of silence. This is where a minority viewpoint gradually disappears from the public conversation, due to the fact that each individual who might express that viewpoint becomes increasingly less likely to do so as the number of other individuals expressing the viewpoint decreases. Given the level of vitriol to which some campus dissidents have been subjected, it would hardly be surprising if many students and academics chose to keep their opinions to themselves. And indeed, evidence from recent surveys indicates that many of them do not speak out.
In a 2017 survey of US college students designed by scholars at Heterodox Academy, 49% of respondents said they were reluctant to speak about politics because they feared that other students might find their views offensive, while 34% said they were reluctant to do so because they feared that a professor might find their views offensive. In another 2017 survey carried out on behalf of FIRE, 30% of respondents said they had “stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion” in class because they feared that other students might find their views offensive, while 39% said that they had stopped themselves from speaking up outside the classroom for the same reason. In a 2018 survey commissioned by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale, 53% of respondents said they had often “felt intimidated in sharing [their] ideas, opinions or beliefs in class” because they were different from those of their professors, while 54% said they had often felt intimidated in sharing them because they were different from those of their peers. (Since this particular question did not refer to offence, it is possible that some of the respondents who self-censored did so for other reasons, such as fear of giving the wrong answer.)
It is worth noting that some commentators, such as Jeffrey Sachs, have argued that not all self-censorship is necessarily a bad thing––even at university. Nevertheless, these results suggest that somewhere between 30 and 50% of US college students have self-censored out of fear of offending someone. (In addition, a recent poll of UK students designed by Tom Simpson and Eric Kaufmann found that Remain voters would be much more comfortable than Leave voters expressing their view in class.) How common is the practice among academics? The two surveys carried out by Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson provide some preliminary estimates, at least for the EU and the UK’s UCU. Respondents were asked whether they “had ever undertaken self-censorship … for fear of negative repercussions.” Alarmingly, 19.1% of EU academics and 35.5% of UCU members admitted that they had. The authors, Karran and Mallinson, note, “Self-censorship at this level appears to make a mockery of any pretence by universities of being paragons of free speech and that of being advocates of unhindered discourse in the pursuit of knowledge and academic freedom.”
Aside from the general atmosphere of political correctness, one major reason for self-censorship at many universities is the existence of so-called Bias Reporting Systems. These are protocols that allow students to anonymously report incidents of “offensive speech” that they may happen to witness on or around campus. In 2016, FIRE discovered 231 Bias Response Teams at US colleges, which implies that “the speech of at least 2.84 million American students” is subject to review by such teams. They also discovered that “12% of teams include at least one administrator dedicated to media relations,” which suggests that one of their purposes is to “deter and respond to controversies that might embarrass the institution.” Knowing that anything you say could potentially be reported to university administrators undoubtedly has a chilling effect on free speech. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt reports that, due to NYU’s Bias Response Line, “I no longer take risks; I must teach to the most easily offended student in the class. I therefore avoid saying or doing anything provocative. My classes are less fun and engaging.”
Part 1 of this essay has outlined six major threats to free speech at university, focussing on institutions in the UK and the US: first, speech codes, speech guidelines and free speech zones; second, no-platforming of external speakers; third, bullying of academics by student activists, other academics and university administrators; fourth, harassment, intimidation or abuse of academics by external actors; fifth, formal sanctions imposed on academics by department heads, university administrators and academic journals; and sixth, self-censorship. While there is an on-going debate about how much more severe these threats have become in recent years, few proponents of free speech would describe the current situation as satisfactory. Part 2 of this essay will discuss some proposals that have been made for how to counteract threats to free speech on campus.