Thursday, 9 November 2017

Free Speech and Political Correctness: Are they really mutually exclusive?

I was speaking with my brother last night on a topic that is being discussed at universities up and down the breadth of the UK: "Is Free Speech in danger of being eroded as a result of Political Correctness?" It's certainly not a new debate but it is one that seems to have lead to division and is at times quite embarrassing to witness. A Newsnight episode last month had a whole segment dedicated to this question, with a specific focus on the "worrying trend" where there is an increasing use of trigger warnings, safe spaces and no-platforming in an attempt to reduce freedom of speech on UK university campuses.Of course it's extremely difficult to cover such topics expansively within a 15 minute window but what was established was that there is a need to clarify for the public the reasons why trigger warnings are used and why safe spaces are established by students and academics and the fact that their existence is not going to completely undermine freedom of speech.

At the same time, the importance of university education needs to be reiterated; free exchange of ideas should be encouraged, texts should not be automatically removed from the degree syllabus just because they could be deemed potentially offensive (although it must be noted that some academics have been accused of designing courses of study which are not truly reflective of diversity and inclusivity which means for example that English Literature students miss out on covering texts which explore a particular social/moral topic). Very few students, graduates, academics and politicians would deny that intellectual rigour needs to be maintained so that students are equipped with the rhetorical tools and critical thinking skills required to express themselves orally and when writing essays/papers in a confident way which can then be transferred into communicating in their personal and professional lives after university. Equally, it's perfectly possible to be politically correct whilst encouraging freedom of expression (which includes free speech); we just have to remember we are all subject to the law and that some forms of expression are made illegal as a result of legislation that has been passed.

The Universities minister, Jo Johnson (brother of Bojo, whose political incorrectness is well, you know, well documented) revealed plans to give the new Office for Students powers to "crack down on safe spaces" and reduce instances of no-platforming. Universities may be "fined, suspended or blacklisted" if they fail to "protect freedom of speech on campuses"( Johnson believes that there are groups of students and academics who are attempting to stifle free speech simply "because they do not agree with them". Johnson should remember that there is an existing legal duty to secure free speech in universities. The 1988 Education Reform Act empowers academic staff to put forward new ideas and controversial opinions, without losing their job. The recent Higher Education and Research Act restates this and as has been pointed out by many academics, defends academics from Brexiteer "McCarthyism" (it's funny how the Tories act as the defenders of free speech yet one of their number thought it was OK to demand the names of academics who teach about Brexit  and the syllabus they provide).

Encouraging debate is important and I certainly want to see people from a diverse range of backgrounds (and political/moral opinions) having the opportunity to thrive and engage in an open, frank and creative environment whilst attending university. When I was an English and Philosophy student at the University of York I was a member of the New Generation Society (from 2007 till 2010). The society had members  from across the political spectrum, debating openly and frankly in the hope of developing new solutions to current political, cultural, moral and societal issues. The hope was that NGS would help reconnect young people of my generation with politics, encouraging them to participate in elections ( I remember there were a number of eye-brow raising, thought-provoking conversations surrounding the UK's relationship with the EU, Housing and State vs Private/Public School education (issues that now have come to the fore) and it's true to say that I found some of the NGS members' views backward and antiquated: there was one member who called himself a staunch Classic Tory and claimed that there were far too many state school students at university which made him feel "uncomfortable" about the future direction of the country (it was becoming "too socially liberal" for him to tolerate) but suffice to say I gave him short shrift after informing him of my academic credentials and where I gained them from...The Priory LSST (now part of the Priory Academies chain. I imagine there were probably more than a few NGS members and guests who felt unnerved at my presence and talking openly about my intersectional feminist values, equality and inclusivity (one was shocked when I declared that the voting age should be lowered to 16 and now all major parties except for the Conservatives (and UKIP but then they aren't anywhere near to achieving major status anymore) have signed up to lowering the voting age #LiberalProgress).  I even managed to deliver my own speech on 21st century Intersectional Feminism, with people coming in who were not even members of NGS to listen to me speak and to debate the importance of feminism in politics. It gave me a great sense of achievement and empowered me to become more vocal about issues that really mattered to me and still matter to me today. I would be very sad to see political debating societies becoming less prevalent on campuses, especially as I think there is a real need for more non-partisan political debating societies on campuses. Yet I remain convinced that free speech is not so "under-threat" as is being reported in right-wing mainstream media newspapers and on political debate shows such as Newsnight that non-partisan university societies would be censored or banned (entirely ludicrous to suggest that such a situation is anywhere near to becoming reality) and that  university societies across the UK continue to play a vital role in advancing and protecting free speech. 

That being said, there are those on the left as well as the right who state openly that they are genuinely concerned that free speech is being curtailed in favour of increasing political correctness. Spiked's "Free Speech University Rankings" reports have been published since 2015 and rate University administration teams and Student Unions based on a "traffic-light ranking system": Green means that freedom of expression isn't restricted unless it is "unlawful", Amber means that a university has issued guidance to ensure the tone of expression is "appropriate" (Spiked argues that the content of the expression itself isn't unlawful but would be deemed offensive) and Red means that a university is openly hostile to freedom of expression, "banning specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books or speakers" ( The University of York has been given an Amber rating for 2017, with Spiked claiming that the University's policy on Sexual Harassment leads to a curtailing of freedom of expression; I'm sorry but I agreed with the University of York introducing consent classes in 2014 and believe that all students should attend; the Independent quite rightly pointed out that consent classes help to "debunk myths surrounding rape, deconstruct the impact of hyper-masculinity on all genders" and ensures students don't "shame peers for their sexual preferences or sexual activity" ( Shame that Spiked cannot see the value of such classes in reducing rates of discrimination and equipping them with the knowledge needed to feel empowered to say "No" and report sexual harassers. Mind you, the University of Lincoln got a Red rating because they have a "No-Platforming policy" and shock horror, an Equal Opportunities one too. You can tell from Spiked's analysis they are not happy about such policies being in place ( but if they help students, academics and others to know when to call out direct and indirect discrimination as and when it happens, then I'm "Sorry, Not Sorry" that the university has one.

No-Platforming and Trigger Warnings: 

Let's tackle the issue of no-platforming. How prevalent is it in 2017? No study has been conducted to tot up the total number of speakers no-platformed at British universities but the mainstream journos certainly want people to feel that it is widespread. What about support for no-platforming policies? Is that widespread? Well, a ComRes poll conducted by the BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme in April 2016 found that 63% of 1,001 respondents were in favour of the National Union of Students (NUS) putting a "no-platforming" policy in place to protect universities from having to host prescribed speakers. 54% of respondents to the survey also stated that the NUS were right to ban individual speakers who would threaten a safe space. Interestingly, 29% of Russell Group university students polled argued that the policy "had gone too far" ( There are a few things to point out with regards to the NUS no-platforming policy. Firstly, the policy concept isn't new; a NUS no platform policy has been in place since 1974 and is designed to ensure that no prescribed organisations or individuals that are known to hold racist or fascist views can speak at universities. Secondly, the policy is voted on every year by legitimate delegates to the annual National Conference. Thirdly, there happens to be only 6 (yes 6) organisations that are banned nationally (Al-Muhajiroun; British National Party (BNP); English Defence League (EDL); Hizb-ut-Tahir; Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and National Action according to Fourthly, individual university student unions have the right to create their own no-platforming policy but it must adhere to NUS guidelines (i.e. no university could ask a member of the BNP to speak without breaking the national policy). Fifthly, student union bodies are private bodies and thus can refuse to host a speaker if they deem that they are a threat to safety. Sixthly, the decision of a SU to no-platform does not contravene the Education Act 1986 (does not apply to SUs as autonomous bodies). Even if speakers are not happy about being no-platformed, the university administration cannot intervene because the SU is an autonomous body; the SU will have made a democratic decision to disinvite and even if some members disagreed with that decision, it is extremely unlikely such a decision will be overturned. Even if a speaker has been disinvited by the SU, they may still be invited to speak, either in the street or at a venue not used by the SU.

I think it is very important to state that nobody, not me, not Bojo, not Germaine Greer or even Queen Elizabeth II herself has an automatic right to a speech platform that hasn't been crafted or administered by ourselves. My blog is a speech platform (and one that I am very glad to have) but I can't go around demanding that I have access to other platforms that I haven't had any hand in creating or administering; I don't have an automatic right to write content for LabourList or Huffington Post, for example. To be invited to write a blog post for a popular opinion site or be invited to give a lecture or take part in a university society debate is an honour and a privilege but one is not entitled to demand such a platform regardless of how successful one is as a opinion ed writer, academic etc. There will undoubtedly be instances when a speaker is disinvited from participating in a debate or delivering a lecture because of comments/views they may hold or maybe even ones they have previously held. It may be upsetting for the person involved that a society or university department makes the decision that an event should not go ahead but free speech advocates  need to stop acting as if it's the end of the world. Even when there is a campaign against a speech going ahead, it may go ahead anyways. In Greer's case, the campaign led by Rachael Melhusiah didn't actually stop Greer from delivering her lecture at Cardiff University (and yes, as expected it was full of transphobia.... I very much doubt that Ms Greer would have modified her transphobic views as a result of her not being allowed to openly speak anyways.

What I also believe is important to remember is that Universities do have a clear duty under the Equality Act 2010 (Public Sector Equality Duty) to encourage tolerance and respect towards people who possess one or more of the protected characteristics under the EA and that includes those who intend, are or have been through Gender Reassignment and those who are perceived as going through Gender Reassignment (see for example Discrimination against trans (and non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender) people in public spaces such as universities is unacceptable. Misgendering is a form of direct discrimination against trans people, no matter how some (trans-exclusionary) radical feminists may want to dress  their utterances up in the guise of "free speech"or claim that biology trumps everything else (psychology is an important science too, you know). Greer may be a celebrated second wave feminist but if trans activists and students felt that their university platform was being used to disseminate hate speech, then they were perfectly entitled to use their freedom of expression to protest against Greer's lecture. Jo Johnson, of course defended Greer, stating that it was "preposterous" for her to banned from speaking, yet would I suspect would react quite differently if a Neo-Nazi had been no-platformed by a university (at least he would agree allowing such a person to speak would not be legitimate and in fact the NUS agree on that point as pointed out earlier). It's alright to be a free speech advocate but let's not pretend that having unfettered free speech would be a good thing (or would be practical).

Often no-platforming has been intrinsically connected with the concept of "political correctness"(PC). Political correctness has been described as "language, policies or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society" ( I've discussed political correctness in a number of my blog posts and what seems clear to me is that those who seem to be against PC altogether are seemingly annoyed that they are not allowed to be openly offensive in public on a regular basis anymore for fear of being rightly called out for it. Equally, conservatives can indulge in political correctness of their own. Alex Nowrasteh calls the right's version of PC in the US "patriotic correctness" and cites the example of reactions to Colin Kaepernick taking the knee instead of standing for the US National Anthem to illustrate this: ( Conservatives in the UK are not happy about the emergence of the White Poppy or people choosing not to wear a Red poppy for personal reasons (Jon Snow was pilloried for stating he wouldn't wear a Red poppy because he doesn't wear any symbol on his clothing) to remember the War dead. No-platforming may be done for supposedly PC reasons but as I've discussed above, are those PC reasons necessarily bad?

Students have been grappling with the dilemma of instituting no-platform policies for supposedly "PC reasons" for many years. The views of students in 2017 are just as diverse as the views that existed back in 2007. The Guardian asked a number of students to weigh in on the topic ( and I have to say that I agree with Lucas North that there are trans students who do feel they can't speak out against transphobes like Greer because they fear being ridiculed and misgendered by radical feminists and social conservatives. I can understand David Troy's suggestion that students, including trans ones should be equipped with the intellectual rigour to challenge transphobes but that does not mean that LGBTQ+ societies should feel mandated to consider inviting transphobes into the safe space of an LGBTQ+ society to "build resilience". Guo Sheng Liu makes a good point when stating that "there is no need to "test ideas that encourage discrimination, nor "expose" transparent prejudices"-i.e. when the discriminatory language against trans people has been prevalent for decades, there's no need to give an extra platform to them. I equally agree with Josh Salisbury that the obsessive focus on students regarding no-platforming is unwarranted and points out that the Government's Prevent Agenda can be seen to undermine free speech (The Just Yorkshire report found that Muslim academics and students felt the Prevent scheme was "fostering a policing culture in higher education" and that Prevent Officers had "disrupted or closed down events about Islamophobia or terrorism that had been organised by academics and campaigners" Clare Patterson makes a very important point and I share her suspicion that "those in power feel uncomfortable seeing that students from marginalised backgrounds can actually have power". Students have the right to speak out against speakers who seek to engrain prejudice further, regardless of their social background and if a large number of students decide to come together to block a speaker from attending their university, then there is little can be done by the speaker.

Trigger Warnings:

Let's turn quickly to all the hoohah regarding Trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are appropriate sometimes. They are already commonly used by mainstream media outlets to tell viewers when distressing images or video may be shown or when potentially offensive language is being used. Such warnings are accepted without free speech advocates throwing their toys out the pram crying censorship. It's also important to recognise that trigger warnings do NOT censor speech; they merely "create an alert about content in the discussion that could prompt traumatic memories if a person happened to experience something related in the past" ( Erin Weinberg argues that those who assume trigger warnings are overprotective "invalidate the struggles of those who have survived some of the worst possible experiences (rape, child sexual exploitation), yet still have the resilience to pursue higher education" (

When I studied Titus Andronicus on my English Literature course at York in the first term there were no trigger warnings offered and nobody in my seminar group were averse to discussing the play but I agree that triggers can be more serious than just "politely muted tears" and warning students in advance of covering a play such as Titus Andronicus is sensible and respectful as it allows students "time to prepare by experiencing (these) genuine from inquiring looks and questions from peers" ( 

Freedom of speech has its limitations: 

Commentators who disagree with the enforcement of no-platforming policies may often make a veiled reference to the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 as a way of defending their right to freedom of expression. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 (and further enshrined in law as Article 10 of the HRA 1998), people resident in the UK have the right to express themselves freely; this includes "the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without State interference" ( Political, artistic and commercial expression are indeed included within this definition. However, Article 10 is a "qualified right"; what this means is that there is are limits placed on our  freedom of expression:
  • when such expression is prescribed by law
  • when it is necessary and proportionate
  • in the interests of "national security, territorial integrity or public safety"
  • to prevent crime
  • to protect the health or morals of the nation
  • to protect the reputation or rights of others
  • when information is classified as confidential (Data Protection Act 1998)
  • to protect and maintain "the authority and impartiality of the judiciary".
It is ludicrous for any person to declare therefore that we have (or should have) an absolute right to freedom of speech without consequences. You may think you have the right to make a statement declaring that x group of people are the "scum of the earth" but that does not mean you have the right to be protected from the consequences of making that comment, whether those consequences are that people are offended or that people get offended and the speech is considered illegal (speech is considered illegal in the UK if it incites hatred towards a group of people based on their skin colour, race, nationality or ethnic origins which leads to discrimination and violence as defined by the Public Order Act 1986, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). Nobody is immune from critique and that includes critique of historical statements someone has made, whether they are made in an oral or written form.

Another element of the free speech debate concerns how legislation may affect the right to protest. Liberty, a pro civil liberties and pro human rights organisation in the UK is concerned about legislation that can lead to arrest for offensive speech. For example, they point out that Section 4A of the Public Order Act "makes it an offence for a person to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour that causes, or is likely, to cause another person harassment, alarm or distress" ( and that Section 4A can be used by organisations and groups against peaceful protesters to silence them or can lead to extremist organisations gaining more exposure for their views. Anyone convicted under Section 4A can be given a fine of up to £5,000 and be imprisoned for up to 6 months. I believe that Section 4A is important to apply in cases for example where a person has the intent to threaten, abuse or throw insults at the same person but peaceful protestors who refrain from using threatening and abusive language whilst they protest should be able to avoid the danger of facing the Section 4A charge. That isn't censorship; it's common decency.

Equally Liberty mention an issue with Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which "makes it an offence to send a message by means of a public electronic communications network which is grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene or offensive nature", in which they say that what is considered "grossly offensive" can be interpreted broadly and tweets that are made "jovially" or satirically have been judged as constituting an offense under this Section. Now, it's important I think to ensure that any tweets that contain death threats, threats of violence or continual harassment are dealt with (by Twitter removing the content and by the person receiving such tweets on a regular basis reporting the tweets to the police). Satirical or "jovial" tweets can be difficult to judge, especially if there is an intent to offend (as is often the case). Yet Section 127 has even been used to convict a young man venting his frustration about not being able to meet with his girlfriend because of the airport being closed (the Judge had decided there may have been an intent to carry out the action described in the tweets) but this conviction was overturned on the basis that there had been a misjudgement about intent. This example demonstrates  that tweets can be misinterpreted and what one person might judge as being "funny" will not be funny to others. I do not think the example means that the Communications Act should be dispensed with, though.

Freedom of speech, Political Correctness and Public Figures: 

We usually require high standards of moral behaviour from public figures and that includes potential, current and ex political figures. When considering making a statement on a particular social or moral/cultural issue, politicians need to navigate the rhetorical waters so they conduct themselves in a way that respects their political office and does not bring politics as a whole into disrepute. Personally, I would say that means that MPs need to abide by the principles enshrined in the Equality Act and do not make inflammatory and discriminatory comments that are aimed to increase prejudice against minority groups or groups that share a protected characteristic. David Davies, MP for Monmouth for example, wrote a newspaper article back in August in the South Wales Angus to misgender trans women in particular; refusing to use the correct pronouns for trans women may seem trivial to people like Mr Davies but to trans people, such deliberate misgendering is an attempt to delegitimise their gender. It's rather interesting that Mr Davies stated in the article that he knew that he'd be seen to be "on the wrong side of history" and "bigoted" (yes, he got that right) but in terms of the supposed free speech vs political correctness debate, I'd say that he was guilty of  refusing to adhere to the Equality Act and as someone who believes that the Equality Act needs to be respected to foster an environment of inclusion, his comments fell short of what I'd expect from a politician. For others (radical feminists and social conservatives), Davies' comments will be seen as "perfectly legitimate" and a demonstration of free speech in action, something to be celebrated because being "non PC" seems to mean it's ok to be discriminatory towards trans, non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer and agender constituents. Hateful comments towards LGBTQ+ people have been made by those on the right of British politics for eons; the DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr being "repulsed by gay and lesbianism" ( one of the most quoted examples. That being said, there are instances where derogatory comments against LGBTQIA+ people by politicians can lead to them being forced to reconsider their political careers. Andrew Turner, the former Tory MP for the Isle of Wight was forced to end his re-election bid in April when he brazenly told school students that "homosexuality is dangerous to society". Jared O' Mara has been suspended from the Labour party for allegedly making misogynistic and transphobic comments towards Sophie Evans, at his nightclub in Sheffield. He had previously resigned from the Women and Equalities Committee for making a series of misogynistic and homophobic comments from 2002 onwards (I don't feel the need to repeat them in this blogpost but some examples can be found here: and here that both of them were forced to face the consequences of their utterances. There should be no room in progressive politics for homophobic, biphobic and transphobic comments and such comments should be rightly condemned. Sending a clear message that there are some comments that should not be uttered in day-to-day common parlance should not be seen as "PC gone mad" but rather demonstrating that we are striving for a more equal, inclusive and compassionate society.

People considering running for public office or even to be a campaigner or activist for their local area should aim to treat people with respect and dignity, regardless of their own cultural, social, moral/ethical and political views and adhere to the principles of the Equality Act. Never be afraid to be forthright but do so intelligently, thoughtfully and respectfully, face-to-face and online. And if the person has been disparaging online or in person in the past, admit your mistakes and present a plan as to how to stop others from making them A sense of political correctness that grounds itself in respect and compassion should not be one that is disparaged and should not be seen as mutually exclusive of free speech; in fact it should be praised and encouraged. Perhaps we need to get back to saying we "agree to disagree" a bit more but as stated above, I believe as a society we must be prepared to take action when free speech crosses the line. That includes misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic, ableist and yes, transphobic comments too.

Another aspect of the conversation is to accept that people from marginalised backgrounds can make comments that offend others on a grand scale but often face a vile response that attacks them on the basis of their protected characteristic. When Munroe Bergdorf made her controversial comments in a Facebook post about white people, stating that the power they hold was inherited and that racism was not learned , this led to her being dropped from L'Oreal and a huge backlash by white people, including Bergdorf's own mother. Now it's OK for people to be vocal about their disagreement with Berdorf on her views about racism, it certainly was NOT acceptable for trolls on social media to send Bergdorf death threats, threats of rape or assault.  It's also important to note that whilst Bergdorf's comments were classified by Facebook as "hate speech" and was deleted but the racist, homophobic and transphobic comments were left on ( This is quite clearly indefensible on Facebook's part because there is no way that racist, homophobic and transphobic comments can not be considered hate speech. Policies and procedures that have been put in place by social media organisations to tackle hate speech  should be applied consistently across the board, otherwise what is the point in actually having them? There is a question as to whether those who are making the decisions regarding social media posts can ever be truly independent and free from bias but the same could be said for anyone; we all have our biases that will impact on the statements that we utter/write but it's OK to have those biases challenged in a respectful manner. Activists like Bergdorf know when they write a post, they may be challenged on it: "being an activist means calling people out, not just saying what everyone else is saying and what everyone else wants to think and upholding the common consensus". They share the desire to be free to say what they think and are aware of the potential consequences but with the hope that life will be better in the future for themselves and more crucially, for others. Freedom of speech can be used to foster a more inclusive and "woke" society and sometimes this may mean not being "politically correct".


It's impossible to encompass a discussion of the relationship between the concepts of free speech and political correctness in just one blogpost. What is clear is that there are many different facets to the debate to consider. Whilst it is right that our universities should be a haven of expressing ideas and that the ability to debate should remain an integral part of the structure of arts and science degree courses, we also should accept that outside of the lecture hall and seminar room, in Student Unions across the country, students have the right to invite and disinvite speakers in accordance with the wishes of Student Union members and the policies and procedures devised both at a national level by the NUS and by each individual Student Union. It should be recognised that the limits to free speech defined within the HRA are designed to protect residents of the UK from hearing hate discourse that may incite violence towards them in their public spaces and that the HRA does not provide speakers with the automatic right to a platform. That means that whilst speakers can express their disappointment at being disinvited from giving a speech at at university by faculty members or by the Students Union (depending on who organised the event) it still does not mean that they have curtailed free speech; after all the speaker could also try and organise the event in a different location. The example of Mr Turner also demonstrates that political correctness, when it relates to helping to protect UK residents (not just British citizens) from discrimination and prejudice and encouraging others to treat people different from themselves with compassion, respect and dignity by calling out deviant free speech acts is vital for combating discriminatory hate speech and reminds us that there is no such idea as there being complete freedom of speech in our democracy without consequences. Free speech is an act and it is one that must be performed with the knowledge that performing that act may lead to negative consequences. Nobody regardless of their position in society should be free not to think of such considerations. The fact we are continuing to have conversations and negotiate our way through balancing free speech considerations with minimising harm is a positive step forward. As Alison Scott-Baumann pointed out in her excellent opinion-ed for The Guardian: "we cannot switch freedom of speech on and off as if it were an app, but we can learn to balance individuals' rights to freedom of expression and freedom of harm in an ongoing conversation" ( We need to continue those conversations, with people of different political persuasions and beliefs but let's be realistic about the restrictions that are placed on free speech in the UK and the positive reasons for those restrictions within public spaces.