The problem & inspiration

Evidence of the problem, and the chilling effect of hard and soft censorship

A number of studies demonstrate that the censorious atmosphere at universities, and actions taken against students and academics who voice heretical views, are having a profound chilling effect on people’s willingness to express their real views.

Here are some examples:

The Department for Education has stated that: “[Universities] should […] take action to prevent a chilling effect on others, where staff, students or visiting speakers may feel unable to express their views for fear of repercussion, and should be careful to avoid contributing to such an effect by their conduct” (DfE, Higher education: free speech and academic freedom, 2021, para 68.) AFFS’s mission is to push our universities to take just these steps.

Here are some specific examples of cancellations and the other problems free speech faces
  • Germaine Greer being no-platformed by Cardiff University in 2015 because of her “misogynistic views towards trans women”.
  • Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell being no-platformed by Canterbury Christ Church University in 2016 because, among other things, he’d signed a letter to the Observer in support of academic free speech.
  • Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, who was no-platformed by Oxford International Women’s Festival following pressure from trans activists who accused Todd of “transphobia”. Activists had also threatened to disrupt previous events Todd had been linked to, with another feminist speaker pulling out of an event citing the Professor’s involvement with an organisation concerned with women’s sex-based rights.
  • Amber Rudd, Former Home Secretary, was no-platformed when the UN Women Oxford UK Society rescinded her invitation to speak 30 minutes before the event was due to take place in February 2020.
  • A first-year student at the University of Kent was placed under investigation for questioning whether George Floyd deserved martyrdom status given his criminal record in June 2020.
  • The University of Exeter and the Exeter Students’ Guild ordered all student societies to cancel the events they’d organised in the autumn of 2020 pending a review of the Guild’s speaker vetting procedures. In effect, the Guild no-platformed a term’s worth of external speakers at Exeter.
  • A group of LGBT activists tried to get a Labour Councillor who worked as a porter at Clare College, Cambridge fired for refusing to vote for a Cambridge Council motion stating “trans women are women” in October 2020.
  • Somerville College, Oxford introduced mandatory Unconscious Bias Training for students in February 2021 and the Principal sent an email to all of them saying that they would need to score 100 per cent in the assessment following the course.
  • Kathleen Stock: University of Sussex: In October 2021, a group of University of Sussex students began a campaign for Stock to be fired as a result of her critical views of gender identity theory. Death and other threats were made and police advised Stock to take precautions for her safety. After initially failing to support her, the University did support her (she considers it to have been lukewarm) and its V-C said that it had “legal and moral duties to ensure people can speak freely”. She resigned as a result of the attacks and threats and said of colleagues: “instead of getting involved in arguing with me using reason, evidence – the traditional university methods – they tell their students in lectures that I pose a harm to trans students”.
  • University of Essex: two professors, both gender critical feminists, were disinvited from two separate events at the University following protests from LGBTQ+ activists who claimed that allowing them to speak would be a breach of various University policies, including one entitled ‘Harassment and Bullying: Our Zero Tolerance Approach’. This double no-platforming provoked widespread condemnation and the University commissioned an equalities barrister to review its policies. She concluded that the University was in breach of its statutory duty to ensure freedom of speech for visiting speakers, as well as its regulatory obligations, duties under charity law and – in all probability – its legal duties as set out in the Equality Act 2010. The University apologised.

Here is some inspiration – and even fun!

See our Good, Bad and Ugly quotes page. Here are some of the best – and worst.

  • “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. – attributed to Voltaire (1758)
  • “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race.” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)
  • “He who stifles free discussion, secretly doubts whether what he professes to believe is really true.” – Wendell Phillips (1870)
  • “Evolution of democracy is not possible if we are not prepared to hear the other side.” – Mahatma Ghandi (1947)
  • “Laws, mores, practices and prejudices that place constraints on freedom of expression are a disservice to society.” – Nelson Mandela (14 February 1994)
  • “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.” – Salman Rushdie (2005)
  • “The freedom of speech is an important yardstick for a society’s level of civilization.” – Ai Wei Wei (2012)“
  • …it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” – University of Chicago, Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression (the “Chicago Principles”) (2014)
  • “Freedom of speech is a human right and the foundation upon which democracy is built. Any restriction of freedom of speech is a restriction upon democracy.” – Deeyah Khan (2015).
  • “I don’t agree that when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.” – Barack Obama (2015)
  • “‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable’.” Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford (September 2017)
  • “Freedom of speech is one of the most precious human rights […] There is no right to not be offended, whether on a university campus or anywhere else.” – Peter Tatchell (October 2017)
  • “Free speech is […] a necessary condition of diversity, and probably diversity’s greatest guarantor.” Andrew Ferguson, Weekly Standard (23 March 2018)
  • “Unless our society abandons its censorious tendencies, it will yield a generation unable to speak freely, to take risks, or even just to be authentic.” –  Rikki Schlott (April 2021)
  • …Inclusiveness means being prepared to listen to opinions and ideas with which we might passionately disagree, and accepting that a truly diverse community is one which is perpetually open to uncomfortable challenge..”Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, Principal, University of St Andrews (November 2021)
  • “The end of the office of the inquisition is the destruction of heresy; this cannot be destroyed unless heretics are destroyed” – Bernard Gui, Practice of the Inquisition (14th Century)
  • “Propositions to be forbidden: that the earth is not at the centre of the heaven, and is not immovable; but moves.”Codex of the Catholic Church is response to Gallileo’s theories (1616)

The University of Chicago led the way in standing up for free speech, publishing the so-called Chicago Principles in 2015. See more here

The Free Speech Union only started in early 2020, and is already leading the way in defending free speech – and academics and students – at our universities.