Freedom of speechlessness – recollections of how another university buckled to the muzzlers

From a Guest Correspondent –

Discovering a collection of columns in The Times by the incomparable Bernard Levin in a secondhand bookshop provided a reminder that the debate over freedom of speech in the universities was raging in Britain more than three decades ago.

In a 1986 (December 1) column headed “Freedom of speechlessness“, Levin noted that the authorities in the University College of Cardiff had made a formal agreement with the students’ union which enshrined the right to deny a hearing to any speaker deemed “controversial“.

Levin wrote:

“If such a speaker is invited, the union will be officially allowed to wage an ‘orderly’ demonstration outside the hall. (In practice, of course, that means that the students will continue, as is the fashion, to bang and spit on the speaker’s car, to try to prevent him from getting into the hall, and to scream abuse at him.)

“When the meeting is about to start, the official demonstrators from outside are to officially enter the hall and take up official position. Should the speaker say something that displeases them, ‘official heckling’ will then begin, and if the speaker persists in saying things they do not approve of, they will then exercise their right, enshrined in the memorable words ‘chanting will take place’ to prevent him being heard.”

Levin said the Cardiff authorities claimed

” … that the agreement ensures a double freedom of speech; the right for a speaker to give his views and the ‘equally important’ right for those who disagree to express their views.”

He said this meant no unapproved speaker would be heard over the “official chanting“, adding:

“We are accustomed, by now, to those who preach an equality between the fire brigade and the arsonist; Cardiff has gone a step further and now insists that the fire brigade’s hoses should squirt petrol rather than water.”

Levin had no confidence in universities defending free speech or academic freedom. He said there was evidence

“…that in any struggle which required courage the universities would be found to practice cowardice; that in any call to them to defend freedom they would bow to freedom’s enemies; and that when there was a challenge to the very nature and essence of a university as a place where all views, all theories, all beliefs could meet and be heard, they would run away from the challenge.”

* Henry Bernard Levin, CBE, was an English journalist, author and broadcaster, described by The Times as “the most famous journalist of his day”.

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