The Tory government recently announced new regulations for universities and student unions, legally requiring them to protect and promote ‘free speech’.
Under these plans, campuses in England will be overseen by a ‘free speech champion’ to ensure that no views are being silenced. The Office for Students board, which this ‘champion’ will sit on, will also be given the power to issue fines for any breaches of regulations.
The Tories claim their interests lie here in defending academic freedoms and encouraging open and fair debate in universities. But what they are in fact protecting is nothing but their own interests.
‘Free speech’ is nothing more than an abstract principle under capitalism, which is then hypocritically and cynically utilised by the ruling class whichever way they like to best defend their system.
There is no doubt that these new regulations will be used for the protection of the views of the establishment and the ruling class. They are all about freedom of speech – until the shoe is on the other foot.
If we, as students and lecturers, begin to express ourselves and argue against the Tories and the establishment – attempting to counter the so-called ‘objective’ accounts of the ruling class – then we will quickly find ourselves silenced. The ‘fundamental right’ of freedom of speech will quickly be thrown out the window in such cases.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. Only last year, the Tory government announced that teaching of ‘anti-capitalist’ material in schools would be banned. In the process, whole chunks of the curriculum – on history and politics, for example – have been whitewashed. Where is our ‘freedom of speech’ here?
This is why the Marxist Student Federation has launched its Tell the Truth campaign, which is being featured regularly in the pages of Socialist Appeal, with our column serialising the crimes of British imperialism – crimes that you won’t hear about in school history lessons.
Silencing the left
By introducing these regulations to universities, the right wing can be safely provided another platform to spew their reactionary and hateful rhetoric, better insulated from the outrage and backlash this rightfully receives. Meanwhile, those on the left will be subject to greater restrictions in opposing this rhetoric.
For example, last week there were attempts to ban Ken Loach, the world-renowned filmmaker, from speaking at a cultural event at St Peter’s College at the University of Oxford.
Calls for the event’s cancellation alleged that Ken Loach has a history of antisemitism, as defined by the IHRA definition of antisemitism. As a result, Loach’s critics – such as the Board of Deputies – asserted that he should not be allowed to speak.
The controversial IHRA definition conflates Judaism with Zionism, and criticism of Israel with antisemitism. This definition received extensive opposition when universities were required to adopt it. Among these was the prediction that antisemitism would be weaponized to no-platform left-wing critics of Zionism and Israeli imperialism.
The accusations made against Ken Loach are a case in point. They are baseless, and are clearly politically motivated. Being a lifelong opponent of the oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state – and being a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn – has nothing to do with antisemitism.
In recent years, there are many who have come down hard on left-wing activists for ‘stifling freedom of speech’ – for example, when protesting against invitations made by the Oxford Union to far-right speakers. Unsurprisingly, these voices have been notable by their absence on this occasion.
No freedom under capitalism
We must also see the question of free speech and academic freedoms in the context of the deteriorating material conditions facing higher education: unequal access to education; extensive marketisation; and widespread job insecurity.
Of course, the Tories and the establishment say nothing about this. This is because the rich and the right wing have no interest in defending anyone’s right to speak but their own. ‘Freedom of speech’ in the abstract is used as a cover for reactionary views, supporting the status quo, and actively silencing opposition and criticism.
Genuine freedom of expression is a democratic right. But it’s one that won’t be realised through any Tory legislation. And it will always be truncated under capitalism, where the media is controlled by a handful of billionaire moguls; and where education is marketised, run in the interest of the bosses’ profits.
Real freedom of expression will only be possible under socialism, with a democratically planned economy, where the organised working class is in control of society.
Only when students and staff alike have democratic control over all aspects of education will there be the space for genuine free discussion. Only then will education finally reflect our own interests and needs, rather than be held back by those of capitalism.
The following motion of solidarity with Ken Loach was passed unanimously at the Marxist Student Federation conference, held last Saturday (13 February), and attended by over 200 revolutionary students and young people from across the country.
“We utterly condemn the McCarthyite campaign against the film director Ken Loach, falsely accusing him of antisemitism, and attempting to prevent him from addressing a cultural event organised by St Peter's College, University of Oxford.
“The campaign to silence a world-renowned artist using the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism is an attempt to slander Ken Loach and undermine free speech.
“We applaud Ken's consistent opposition to the oppression of the Palestinians and the aparteid actions of the Israeli state. Such opposition has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism.”