Freedom of speech is currently the subject of intense debate within universities and learned societies, and especially in relation to the announcement in the May 2021 Queen’s Speech of the Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill. The Bill, which is approaching its third reading in the House of Commons, proposes “to make provision in relation to freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education institutions and in students’ unions; and for connected purposes.” This Bill emerged around the same time as the declaration of academic freedom EU 2020, (pdf) to which the UK Department for Education is a signatory. While the principle of freedom of speech appears to be at the heart of both the Bill and the declaration, concern has been publicly expressed in the press and elsewhere about the possible unintended consequences of the Bill.
At the same time we have been made aware of worrying public interventions by ministers specifically relating to sociologists and their work as educators, exemplified in comments made during a meeting of the Education Select Committee. Sociologists have raised concerns about political attacks on the teaching of critical race theory, a collection of theoretical frameworks used by sociologists and other scholars to examine racism. We are inclined to agree with the remarks made in June 2021 by Gavan Titley in an LA Times op-ed that “the democratic importance of free speech is being misappropriated to advance reactionary politics”.
The BSA exists for the advancement of public education through the insights gained from sociological study, research and critique. In order to achieve our objective, we support the principle – rather than the ideological wielding – of freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views, providing that the speech and expression protects the human rights, preserves the dignity, and acknowledges the lived experiences of individuals and protected groups. Indeed, we believe that freedom of speech is essential to encourage and enable sociological research, teaching and the application of sociological insights. We recognise that this is a complex issue and understand individuals will disagree with one another. Nonetheless, we strongly support the role of universities as places for the respectful exchange of ideas, for the purpose of greater discussion, understanding and education.
It is our view that it is inappropriate for politicians to interfere in academic debate. Universities have robust human resources processes and ministers must have faith that matters of staff and student conduct will be dealt with fully and fairly by higher education institutions. This includes any concerns about academic freedom, which are not best addressed by government.