The government has announced the appointment of a ‘free speech champion’ to ensure universities do not allow controversial speakers to be routinely ‘no platformed’ or ‘dis-invited’ by students who disagree with their views.
Student, civil liberties groups and some academics have protested that there is little evidence that this has been a major issue in recent years and the government is over-reacting.
While the incidence of no platforming, dis-inviting, heckling or disruption may be few and far between; such behaviour doesn’t need to happen very often for it to have a long-lasting and deeply chilling effect on the social, political and intellectual culture of a place like a university - which by their very definition, should be models of diverse and challenging opinion. In hostile environments, people quickly learn to self-censor and avoid the possibility of unpleasantness and conflict.
There is evidence [*] that the narrowing of ‘free speech’ is happening even before students get to university. Are young people learning from their time in school that views, opinions and attitudes that don’t fit with ‘the mainstream’ should 'legitimately' not be tolerated or silenced? Are they somehow imbibing that it is 'a good and virtuous thing' not to tolerate those who express scepticism or opposition about the right of, for example, trans-people to self identify, gays to marry, women to claim patriarchy or for for ‘Black Lives Matter’ to claim exceptionality?
If children and young people are imbibing such assumptions without question, we are doing them a very deep disservice.
I think we should be teaching children and young people in schools that they should stand up for the rights of other people, especially the right to be deserving of respect. That’s a good and virtuous thing. I also think we should be teaching children and young people to be tolerant of people with different faiths and beliefs, especially tolerant of faiths and beliefs that are fundamentally different to their own. Tolerance is a virtue.
But standing up for rights, mutual respect and tolerance does not mean one has to accept 'anything and everything' others say or do. There are limits. Children should be explicitly taught that abuse, threats and incitement to violence are not tolerated in a civilised society and are rightly illegal.
We should respect people, but we do not have to respect ideas. They are open to challenge - but they should be challenged in ways that are respectful and allow for the possibility of reasonable disagreement. And where fundamental disagreements exist, conversations respectfully come to an end and people ‘agree to disagree’ without the need to troll or abuse.
One of the most powerful ways of modelling this is through the existence of school ‘debating societies’ – where children even as young as eight or nine years old can learn the rules of engagement: someone proposes an argument without fear of interruption; someone else seconds it and backs up that argument with a range of complementary points; someone then opposes the argument, also with a ‘seconder’. Those listening – the audience - agree not to heckle, question or disrupt but to tolerate what is being said – however odious or disagreeable the sentiments expressed (within limits of abuse, threats and incitement) - until all the arguments have been laid out. Then when they have been – such weaknesses that exist are exposed by questions, challenges and testing. Finally a judgment is made - by a show of hands - about who has set out their arguments best and who has been persuaded by the better cogency and more elevated rhetoric; or alternatively, left unimpressed by flaws or inarticulacy.
In my view, every school in the country should have a debating society [†] and no topic or proposition should be off limits – only abuse, threats and incitement are forbidden. There should be local, regional and national competitions with attractive prizes.
When I was at school, a comprehensive in Liverpool in the 1970s, my English teachers Mr Le Roi and Mr Bruns started a debating society. Nothing was off limits to us - abortion, immigration, 'apartheid South Africa', nuclear weapons, homosexuality, 'women's lib'... all the hot topics of the day.
Debating societies teach children to learn about and practise fundamental values: the limits and extent of rights, respect, tolerance and free speech.
If we, as teachers, are inadvertently teaching children to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’ - thinking this is somehow a virtuous thing to do – we are mistaken. We should be as tolerant of the diversity of opinion as much as we have become tolerant of the diversity of sexuality, gender-identification, ethnicity, race and many other social values.
If we teach children tolerance of the diversity of opinion in school, then the government really would have no need for a ‘free speech champion’ when they arrive as students at university.
Does your school need a ‘free speech champion’?
Yes! it does. It’s you!
Start a school debating society and you’ll find that you’re not only preparing young people to be articulate about rights and values but also how to become barristers, journalists, politicians, campaigners, advocates and much else besides.
For resources on setting up debating societies, go to:
The English Speaking Union www.esu.org
You can also use an excellent tool - the 'Debate Pyramid' - to help your students focus on good debating practice. My thanks to Zahara Choudhury at 'Schools Should Be' for sharing it: https://schoolshouldbe.com/students-need-to-learn-how-to-debate/
[*] Read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book: The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) Penguin. London. Though the book focuses on the experience of American young people, it is easy to extrapolate to what is also happening in the UK and Europe.
[†] Those wanting to start a debating society in school can get excellent advice and resources from the English Speaking Union www.esu.org
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures and writes on professional values in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.You can follow him on Twitterat @newteacherstalk.
You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’– which includes a discussion ‘free speech’. It comprises a 3-module course that deals extensively with ethics and values, with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.