Posted: 21 April 2017
"Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." Colossians 4:6 (NIV)
"Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied 'Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.'" Acts 4:18-20 (NIV)
Universities have historically been places where free enquiry is championed, received wisdom is questioned, new theories are explored and controversial opinions put forward. Students are supposed to delight in learning about different points of view and expanding their horizons.
Yet something strange has happened on university campuses in the past few years. Increasingly some students have become intellectually intolerant. A small but vocal minority are preventing other students, lecturers or visiting speakers from even mentioning certain ideas. This is sometimes done through noisy protesting or bullying and harassment on social media. Sometimes it is through complaints to university authorities. Occasionally there is actual violence or threats of violence.
Those who hold to fairly mainstream right-wing political views now find it very difficult to get a hearing in many universities. Anyone who wishes to defend a biblical approach to sexual ethics, gender identity or abortion may find they are simply not allowed a platform to speak.
But it is not just more conservative or religious opinions that are being frozen out of campus life. In the past two years a whole range of people from feminist campaigners Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell and atheist Marxist journalist Brendan O'Neill, to Catholic writer Tim Stanley, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and even Alon Roth-Snir, Deputy Israeli Ambassador to the UK, have all been 'no-platformed' and prevented from speaking at British universities.
Many lecturers have been pressured into including 'trigger warnings' in their course materials – messages highlighting that certain reading might offend or upset some students. Several student unions have suggested that university should be a 'safe space' where students are not exposed to ideas they disagree with. The online magazine Spiked collates a 'Free Speech University Ranking', and the most recent findings were that 94% of UK universities have censored speech in some form in the past year.
Law and Culture
Things have got so bad that the Government has woken up to the problem and is threatening to intervene. In March 2017 the Minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson, wrote to universities saying that they would be compelled to include a clear commitment to freedom of speech in their governance documents. It is not clear what precisely the Government intends to do to achieve this, though, because the law already requires universities to protect free expression on campus.
Section 43(1) of the Education Act (No. 2) 1986 imposes a duty to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for academics, students and visiting speakers. This duty includes the need to have a code of practice in place setting out procedures that ensure free speech is protected, and a requirement to ensure use of university premises is not denied to individuals or organisations on grounds connected with their beliefs, views or objectives.
The Education Reform Act 1988 section 202(2)(a) provides additional protection for academics, as it requires universities, when disciplining or dismissing staff, to have regard to the need to ensure they have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.
The problem, then, is not really one of law, but of sections of contemporary student culture. It is primarily students themselves who are driving this new intolerance on campus, rather than the university authorities restricting free speech. The current crop of students has been called, somewhat unkindly, 'Generation Snowflake', in that they melt down at the slightest provocation. Actually, most students are still eager to hear both sides of an argument and engage with new ideas, and there are signs of the beginning of a welcome student-led backlash against the curbing of free speech. However, the root cause of the intolerance seems to be that a significant number of students genuinely feel emotionally hurt and distressed when they hear that someone does not agree with their lifestyle, sexual ethics or political views. They have lost the ability to understand that a person might disagree with them and yet still be capable of treating them with respect, or even love.
One possible reason why some students feel this way is the pervasive cultural message that our most fundamental identity and purpose is to be found in our sexuality, race, gender or some other protected characteristic. Thus if the identity students have constructed on any of these foundations is questioned or challenged, they struggle to see this as simply a disagreement over ideas, to be debated civilly and rationally, but rather it appears as an attack on their very self. The clashes about freedom of speech on campus, therefore, are just the symptoms of a much deeper cultural malaise.
Why is this an issue for Christians?
First and foremost this is an issue Christians should be concerned about because if freedom of speech on campus is constrained it will greatly hinder proclamation of the gospel and the discipleship of Christian students. Over the past few decades God has been pleased to use churches in university towns, Christian Unions and university missions to bring many people to a saving faith in Jesus. The opportunity to continue that work is under threat if it becomes harder to speak about the more offensive or controversial aspects of the gospel in universities.
Moreover, those who are currently students at university will go on to become the leaders in business, politics, the media, law, medicine and many other spheres in the future. If they do so, whilst maintaining the intellectually intolerant mind-set formed at university, then the whole of society will become more hostile to unpopular ideas and freedom to speak and live out the gospel will become threatened everywhere.
But this is also a problem at a deeper level. Students at university are under huge cultural pressure to accept a worldview that tells them they must create their own identity and that their gender, sexuality, race etc are their most defining features. This is simply not true, and an identity founded on such things will inevitably be brittle, unsatisfying and lead to psychologically damaging introspection and self-centredness. The glorious truth is that God made every single one of us for Himself, reveals to us who we are, and offers us a satisfying identity in Christ, if we are willing to accept this. That identity is what can give us the solid foundation necessary to avoid a negative focus on our own needs and desires and instead positively look outwards to the needs of others.
1. That God would protect freedom of speech in universities and colleges in the UK, so that the proclamation of the gospel to students can continue openly and without hindrance.
2. For the Christian Unions, and their leadership, in the universities that they may have favour and wisdom as they proclaim the gospel.
Take Action. Consider joining the "Defend free speech" mailing list or use their online guide to write to your MP about this issue and related freedom of speech challenges: http://defendfreespeech.org.uk/tips-hints-on-what-to-say
Support students' freedom of speech. For all students, not just Christians. Wouldn't it be a great thing if Christians, and Christian students, became those known for being open-minded, willing to question and debate big ideas respectfully, and stand up for the right of others, even if we disagree? Why not ask any students you know how you can support them and partner with them in advocating for this fundamental human right on university campuses?
The Intolerance of Tolerance by Don Carson (2013, Eerdmans)
Speak Up! by the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship and Evangelical Alliance (2016, available online at https://greatcommission.co.uk/speak-up-a-summary-guide)
Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge by Joanna Williams (2016, Palgrave Macmillan)