free speech debate

Extremism plan pushes the UK down a dangerously illiberal road

David Cameron has attacked universities for allowing radical Islam to be spread on their campuses. But who draws the line when it comes to freedom of speech?

David Cameron has attacked British universities for failing to tackle extremism on their campuses. In a speech setting out a five-year plan to counter extreme views, the UK prime minister accused university leaders of “looking the other way” when Islamist extremists speak on campus. This, he said was “through a mixture of misguided liberalism and cultural sensitivity”.

For many people, this message is clear – Britain welcomes diverse opinions and viewpoints within certain “bounds of acceptability.” If you want to have a debate over the role of religion and civil society, that’s perfectly acceptable, but host a speaker with beliefs in line with what the government considers an unacceptable version of Islamic thought and you are out of bounds.

Arguments against free speech absolutism often rely on examples where public opinion clearly opposes a speaker or group (such as Nazis or those espousing extremist views in the name of Islam) and this is what makes the bounds-of-acceptability arguments fronted by Cameron so dangerous.

The right to free speech exists precisely to protect whatever speech the majority finds abhorrent and so is inclined to censor. Many of the ideas that led to substantial moral progress in history emerged out of viewpoints that swam against the currents of public opinion. And as John Stuart Mill famously noted, even odious ideas can lead to progress, as we sharpen our understanding of the truth by observing its “collision with error” in public debate.

The crucial problem with bounds-of-acceptability restrictions on free speech is that different sub-groups draw the lines differently. The British public, writ large, may wish to curtail discussions of the more radical views espoused by a minority of those who identify as Muslim – but some students on university campuses have different expectations. They are more likely to demand the removal of credentialed ambassadors of the State of Israel, for example.

The disparity between what the British public wants and the demands made by students on university campuses (or any other sub-group for that matter) is not surprising because, in the absence of a constitutional backdrop giving firm legal standing to free speech – such as exists in the US – people will become highly situational in their preferences.

Where does the public draw the line?

In April 2015, my colleague Jason Reifler and I posed ten hypothetical speakers to a representative sample of the British public. We asked whether they should be allowed to speak on British university campuses, often held to be ideal “marketplaces of ideas”.

Results presented in the table show that the public is decidedly mixed on allowing speakers from groups such as the far-right English Defence League or those espousing sharia law on campus. They are more supportive of allowing a source of much controversy to students – a representative of Israel or a climate change denier – to speak.
Recently, British universities and student unions have been criticised for either allowing or attempting to ban certain individuals, groups and organisations from speaking in their venues. Should the following be allowed to speak on university campuses?



Who should have freedom of speech? Thomas Scotto, Author provided

A closer analysis of results show that few (only 7.7%) want to ban all speakers, while a larger proportion – but still only a minority, 24.2% of the sample – appear to be free speech purists and want all views to be heard on campuses. The majority deem only some speakers to be appropriate. Some respondents want to ban most, but not all, speakers. A smaller group of about one in five of those in the sample is happy with allowing nearly all speakers – but they too have their limitations.

Upon detailed inspection of the data, a most interesting finding is that those who wish to ban some but not all speakers differ widely on which to ban. For example, some are perfectly fine with speakers who deny climate change or argue that homosexuality can be cured, and will listen to beliefs about sharia law from an Islamic cleric but, at the same time, want the EDL and the atheist group banned.

Others are comfortable allowing the EDL and 9/11 conspiracy theorists on campus but are ill at ease with the Islamic cleric. In other words, the public has varied and often contradictory conceptions about the bounds of acceptability for free speech on British university campuses.

Who decides?

These results suggest that calls to ban speakers, and to monitor allegedly hateful and extremist speech, will always be situational. The content of these demands will shift based on the preferences of those in power.

Cameron and the home secretary, Theresa May, are trying to define the boundaries of free speech in the UK. They are not the first to do so, but they are taking the country down a decidedly illiberal road. If bounds of acceptability can be moved so easily, different sub-groups will start making demands that free speech protections be narrowed. And as we have seen, different groups deem speakers and ideas of different stripes as unacceptable so the circle of permissible debate in the UK may close very rapidly.

As long as we permit majorities to curtail speech they dislike – be they majorities in Westminster, or student governments or management teams on university campuses – liberty will remain insecure. Only the legal entrenchment of a capacious right to free speech would avoid these shifting sands and guarantee genuine free speech for all.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.