Opinion

Will the government’s ‘free-speech champion’ silence students?

Written by Brooke Cadwell

The free-speech champion, announced early this month, is set to ‘protect’ the legal rights of students and staff on campus — but will it really? Or could it just be another power grab by the government?

The emergence of anonymous confession pages, such as LeicFess, has made it clear that many students keep their conservative values under wraps to avoid a perceived ostracisation, often made more sinister by the media. One Leicester student confessed in April 2020 that: “I’ll always vote conservative. Now I’m not at uni I can finally say it.”

As a result, it may come to no surprise that 52% of British adults in a 2019 YouGov poll agree that universities have increasingly become an echo chamber for ‘woke’ culture. The right-wing press do not hesitate to push this agenda and thus harm students and staff alike. Moreover, to assume that leftism is becoming the new norm, is completely absurd. The very fact that the government can police the autonomy of universities exposes the fragile authority that student unions truly hold in society.

The ‘war on woke’ is not just limited within the campus. Chief editor of UK socialist magazine Tribune, Ronan Burtenshaw, stated in a tweet that Tribune is fighting a legal case which may threaten its future, and that conservatism is a “far greater threat” than “any gang of students”. The ‘hostile environment’ is becoming more true than ever, and this time it is targeting students.

A post from the anonymous facebook page LeicFess

The Department for Education, who will issue fines on universities who restrict free speech, states that left-wing ‘emotional safety’ is becoming a ‘conventional wisdom’ that must be abolished. The official publication even compares the past unpopularity of women’s suffrage and gay rights to the controversy of conservatism and neo-liberalism on campus today. This is extremely dangerous, as this victimises a conservative stronghold that has been in power for more than 10 years, and points to the organisation of the student union as the oppressive boogeyman that it is portrayed.

Therefore, this is not really free speech that is being threatened. It is power that is being threatened.

The student union should be left-wing by its very nature. Stamping out racism, sexism and inequalities on campus are real issues which must be contemplated and applied to life post-university— without a counterculture, what use is free-speech really? As Polish social revolutionary and philosopher Rosa Luxemburg states, rights should attributed to those who have an “unequal access to power”. In a liberal capitalist society that we are in now, conservatism is very much, and always has been, in political and social dominance.

The existence of academic representation, clubs and societies in student unions are tools that students can use have their say — for the government to undermine the autonomy of universities restricts them from their purpose. In turn, this may harm free-speech.

Moreover, the introduction of the champion has uncovered the government’s prioritisation of the wrong things. If they truly cared about free speech, where is the platform for those truly affected by the pandemic? Rent strikes, digital poverty and the neglect of international students in crisis, are all extremely important issues which are still left unheeded. The fact that there is so much student uproar shows that there are clearly concerns which are unaddressed.

Therefore, a reassertion of Tory hegemonic power is the only reason to manipulate culture wars to suit the government’s favour. We must not forget that if a free-speech champion was implemented  in Russia or China, our government would be quick to condemn it as authoritarian. Our government uses vocabulary like ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ to disguise a rather dangerous policy.

Finally, while free-speech should be for everybody, a class society means that some will be provided with a larger platform than others. As students, we must value the power of free-speech and use it within our own means to defend ourselves, as well as the most vulnerable and neglected in our communities.

WordPress account: brookesbeacon.wordpress.com


Brooke Cadwell is a final year English student at the University of Leicester. She is interested in arts, culture and politics. You can find her Instagram and Twitter at: @brookecadwell_