Historians' Watch

The ‘crisis’ over academic freedom from the 1970s to the 2020s

Last week, the Policy Exchange thinktank published a report on academic freedom at British universities, which suggested that academic freedom and freedom of speech was under threat, with people self-censoring in their place of work or study. Following the pledge by the Conservatives at the last election to introduce legislation to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom at universities and colleges, the report proposed an academic freedom regulator to oversee this. Several right-leaning journalists and commentators ran with this report and alleged that right-wing academics felt pressure to conform from the ‘woke’ left inside the academy.

This was not the first Policy Exchange report to cover this topic, with a similar report on free speech on campus appearing in 2019. This taps into a contemporary concern about ‘cancel culture’ and the end of free speech, as well as academic freedom, at British universities. But fears about protesting students and scholars shutting down controversial academic research and teaching has been around for several decades.

In the year before the introduction of the National Union of Students’ policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists and racists in April 1974, there were two incidents involving the shutting down of talks by academics at British universities. These often-overlooked events highlight the contentious nature of debates about free speech on campus, which still rage today and have a much longer history than commonly perceived.

In May 1973, the controversial psychologist Hans Eysenck rose to speak to the Social Science Society at the London School of Economics in front of a crowd of protesting students. After a short pause in the proceedings, a small number of protestors, allegedly from the Maoist group the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), stormed the stage and physically assaulted Eysenck. Eysenck was to speak on the subject of IQ and race and in the days leading up to his talk, many students protested against him speaking. This included the Maoist-leaning Afro-Asian Society at LSE, which called Eysenck a ‘fascist’ who supposedly spoke on behalf of his ‘British imperialist’ masters.

A month later, American academic Samuel Huntington attempted to give a guest lecture at the University of Sussex, but the venue was occupied by protesting students, primarily organised by the Sussex Indo-China Solidarity Committee. Students opposed Huntington due to his work with the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and had been informed that they would not have the chance to publicly challenge him. Even after pleading from those who invited Huntington, the students refused to move and the lecture was cancelled.

Although one involved violence and one was a peaceful protest, both incidents were portrayed by the media and by politicians as serious challenges to academic freedom and freedom of speech at British universities. For example, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed: ‘Recent events suggest that universities are no longer firmly wedded to free speech and free academic inquiry’. While the late 1960s saw similar exclamations after two hard right Tory MPs, Enoch Powell and Patrick Wall, were shouted down at a number of universities across the country. The fact that Eysenck and Huntington were both academics meant that students were understood to be attacking critical thinking, rather than just political discourse. This can be seen in an editorial in The Guardian, which asked:

If in face of such threats [to freedom of speech] university authorities and academic staffs generally decide to nothing, they should not be surprised when Parliament and the public begin to believe that ‘academic freedom’ is a term which has lost its meaning. If the universities cease to defend it, will anyone else?

A range of responses were offered, with former Labour Minister Richard Crossman heavily implying that academics who supported these forms of protest be dismissed. A journalist in the Daily Telegraph suggested that universities install CCTV (similar to that being used by the British Army in Northern Ireland), while a right-wing think tank proposed setting up a ‘free speech squad’ to ensure that controversial speakers were allowed to speak. The Freedom Under Law Group, originally founded to support apartheid South Africa, talked of groups of ‘brawny young men’ that could ‘protect the right of speakers to be heard and audiences to hear them’, as well as ‘deal with would-be wreckers in an expert way.’ Despite individual MPs voicing their concerns, the Conservative government did not indicate that they would intervene. The Thatcher government did intervene with the Education (no. 2) Act in 1986 and the current government have shown signs of an intention to act with Gavin Williamson’s recent announcements about further laws to protect free speech on campus.

The International Marxist Group’s The Red Mole newspaper from 18 September 1972. The article, published nearly two years before the NUS policy, argues that fascists, like the National Front, should be shut down when they try to organise in public.

The student movement debated whether academics like Eysenck and Huntington should be allowed to speak on campus, with some on the student left taking inspiration from previous anti-fascist and anti-racist actions that shut down speakers who promoted fascist or racist views. Before the National Union of Students’ ‘no platform’ policy, which came in 1974, responses to these speakers were ad hoc and localised, owing to the dynamics of the student movement in each area. In the wake of Eysenck and other academics promoting racialized scientific theories, some radical academics had formed groups to combat these controversial scholars, such as the ‘Campaign on Racism, IQ and the Class Society’. The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight continued to highlight the racialized scientific and psychological arguments put forward by Eysenck and other academics in Britain and North America through the 1970s.

In the early 1970s, the focus of activists had shifted to the National Front. The NF had started to attract a significant number of voters, while also building a street presence, and their activities included harassing student protests, both on and off campus. In April 1974, the NUS formally adopted a policy of ‘no platform’ for fascists and explicit racists, centred on combating the National Front, but debate raged over whether academics like Eysenck (or politicians like Powell) would be subject to this policy. The NUS position suggested that academics like Eysenck would not be the target of the policy, although some on the far left argued that Eysenck gave a scholarly sheen to racial science and should be dealt with in the same way.  But in the main, students concentrated on combating the National Front.

Although the introduction of the ‘no platform’ policy was described as the death knell to freedom of speech and academic freedom at British universities and colleges, it was narrower in its application than the protests over the previous half decade, which saw a wide range of speakers shut down. Over the years, students pushed for the policy to be expanded and the tactic was used at individual universities and colleges to protest against other controversial speakers, such as hard right politicians, anti-abortionists, homophobes and defenders of apartheid South Africa. This included protests against academics who were deemed to be involved in racism, such as Richard Lynn at the University of Ulster and Robert Gayre at the University of Glasgow.

Recent controversies around protests against academics, such as Noah Carl’s dismissal from the University of Cambridge, have been part of a moral panic about the threat that ‘woke’ students and academics present to academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, alongside the high profile ‘no platforming’ of speakers, such as Germaine Greer, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Amber Rudd (amongst others). The shutting down of Hans Eysenck and Samuel Huntington in 1973 show that these kind of protest actions precede the ‘no platform’ policy of the 1970s and there has always been challenges to controversial speakers and scholars. And even when a formal policy is put in place to deal with these protests, its application is contested at the grassroots level.

Both the Conservative government and university administrators are redoubling efforts to regulate student activism and ‘protect’ free speech, as well as preserve academic freedom on campus. HE policy makers would be well advised to consider the history of protest, campaigning and student politics, which shows definitively that this is difficult terrain in practice. Student unions have attempted to formalise protest against certain speakers (which has often been challenged by radical student actions, such as the disruption of Jacob Rees Mogg at the University of Bristol in 2018), while university authorities and the government have endeavoured to crack down on these protests (balancing commitments to freedom of speech with public order concerns). Both approaches have been tested as protests against controversial speakers on campus have continued to occur.

Despite the media portrayal that a free speech ‘crisis’ has emerged over the last ten years, due to a combination of ‘woke’ and risk averse students entering the university system, it is evident that the controversy surrounding freedom of speech, academic freedom and ‘no platforming’ has lingered on for decades. Recent incidents have led the Conservative Education Secretary to pronounce new legislative measures against ‘no platforming’ and for several media commentators to form the Free Speech Union, headed by columnist Toby Young. Student protest and ‘no platforming’ actions are unlikely to go away quietly, while the proponents of racism and fascism continue to seek an audience.

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