Andrew Tettenborn

Could the ‘Kathleen Stock’ amendment backfire?

Could the 'Kathleen Stock' amendment backfire?
Kathleen Stock. Credit: Sonali Fernando
Text settings
CommentsShare

The hounding of Kathleen Stock – who left Sussex university following a concerted campaign against her by trans rights activists – was a disgraceful indictment of freedom of speech on campus. But one remedy for preventing a repeat – the so-called 'Stock amendment' to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, now passing through the Commons – isn't the answer. Impetuous legislation is normally bad legislation; unless we think very carefully, we may end up with something ineffective or even counter-productive.

At first glance, a simple ban on students piling in to demand the sacking or departure of professors on account of their politics or teaching might look good. Indeed, it could be defended very plausibly on the basis that it is up to universities, not students, to dictate what they teach and who teaches it, and that we need to protect that right. But a closer look reveals the problem with the 'Stock amendment'. 

For one thing, it would look incongruous in a bill ostensibly meant to increase students’ rights to speak their mind. 'You can say what you like, but you mustn’t concertedly attack your professors’ qualification to teach you,' is hardly a ringing endorsement of free speech. 

Rather more importantly, it could also backfire. Imagine the boot is on the other foot, and we are dealing not with an analytical philosopher, but an academic in the humanities who, for example, frowns on any questioning of the tenets of Michel Foucault or critical race theory, or for that matter of the proposition that 'trans men are men'. Do we want to give a left-wing vice-chancellor a cast-iron legal justification for telling students that they cannot campaign against that professor on the basis that they are not receiving a rigorous education worth the name, and that if they do they will be disciplined?

Another possibility would be to add a specific bar on any student speech that could cause offence or distress to a member of staff. But this too would almost certainly cause more trouble than it was worth. It would encourage a large degree of manufactured offence. To make maters worse, it would go a great way to negating the guarantee of free speech elsewhere in the bill and give its critics – of whom there are many, especially in academia – some reason to say that the mountain of academic free speech advocacy had groaned and brought forth a mouse. University administrators could plausibly continue to suppress a great deal of speech, going way beyond the unacceptable events at Sussex, by repeating the mantra that they were merely protecting their staff.

What should we do, then, to prevent others suffering the fate of Stock? Perhaps the only practical way forward is to concentrate, not on speech, but on physical intimidation and disruption. It is already a criminal offence to demonstrate in such a way as to cause others to experience alarm or a reasonable fear of violence. The actions of balaclava-clad protesters who yelled obscenities aimed at professor Stock were thus arguably illegal. But this could be extended. A new offence of deliberately acting anywhere on, or just outside, a university building or campus with intent physically to prevent the carrying on of the activities of the university, its students and staff, could be introduced.

Even here, though, the prospects are limited. Unlike US colleges, our universities do not have campus police to deal with troublemakers; and it is a fair bet that the ordinary police would show little interest in getting involved in activities like those that disfigured the Brighton campus.

Another possibility would be to impose a specific legal duty on universities to protect staff from intimidation, with provision for compensation if they fail to do that. But this also has its own difficulties. Making universities automatically liable for the acts of their students on campus, even if such activities were spontaneous and unpreventable, would be drastic and possibly unfair to universities. With limited numbers of security staff on site, and police intervention from outside pretty unlikely, a university would be unlikely to be found at fault for failure to take on directly the kind of thuggery we encountered in Brighton.

In the end, it seems likely that the long-term answer lies in the hands of the universities themselves. Those who act as the Brighton protesters did are nearly always guilty of a serious breach of university regulations, and liable to fairly severe disciplinary penalties. Provided that they can be recognised and named, there is a strong case for universities to get tough and introduce a zero-tolerance policy towards intimidating others on campus. After all, if you are not prepared to allow your university to act as a home for free thought for those you disagree with, you have no place in it, and you have nothing to complain about if you are suspended or sent down.

Admittedly this solution, however potentially effective (and, one suspects, attractive to parents who, asked to fund their children’s education, will naturally look for a programme that will not be disrupted), is nothing to do with the Free Speech Bill. But perhaps that’s not surprising. The outrage at Sussex was due more than anything else to veiled threats of violence. Menaces like that call for suppression, not by well-meaning changes in the law on university free speech, but by more radical measures.