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Balance free speech with personal respect

06 November 2015

For the good of society, students must learn to debate constructively when cultures clash, argues James Walters


Silenced? Professor Germaine Greer, who was strongly criticised by students at Cardiff University, where she had been scheduled to give a lecture

Silenced? Professor Germaine Greer, who was strongly criticised by students at Cardiff University, where she had been scheduled to give a lecture

IT WAS Dr Henry Kissinger who famously said that the reason university politics was so vicious was that the stakes were so small. In some sense, this is true. Students are exploring adult views and conflicts in an environment that affords more protection than the world into which they will graduate.

In recent months, however, we have seen more and more how our university campuses are febrile microcosms of that adult world where society’s challenges of pluralism and cultural difference are being played out. This has certainly raised the stakes.

At the heart of current controversies is the growing suspicion that free speech, which universities are required by law to uphold, is under threat.

The Right is most likely to blame what The Spectator has branded “Stepford students” — politically correct liberals who want to give “no platform” to any view that might cause discomfort or offence. Professor Germaine Greer appears to be the latest victim, vilified by students at Cardiff University, where she was scheduled to give a lecture this term, for her scepticism about whether a male-to-female transsexual could truly be considered a woman.

The Left sees the threat to free speech as coming from the Government — particularly its counter-terrorism Prevent strategy, which, besides throwing suspicion on devout Muslim students, will be used, some fear, to clamp down on pro-Palestinian activism.

Both sides have legitimate concerns. The attack on Professor Greer smacks of a witch hunt, and the profiling and monitoring implications of Prevent are alarming. Yet the solution does not lie where both Left and Right imagine, in some ideal notion of unregulated free speech.

A state of affairs where anybody can say what they like with impunity creates a society that legitimises bullying and further isolates minorities. Unregulated free speech is like unregulated free markets: it serves the powerful.


IN REALITY, social consensus and dominant norms shape the definitions of acceptable speech all the time.

This was illustrated in two incidents at my university, the London School of Economics (LSE), which made the headlines.

In 2013, two members of the Atheist Society wore T-shirts that depicted cartoons of Jesus and Muhammad, at the freshers’ fair. After complaints from students, they were asked to remove them; but, when faced with legal challenge over freedom of expression, the LSE apologised to the students, and conceded that their rights had been violated.

The following year, it was the turn of the rugby club to cause offence, handing out leaflets that referred to ugly girls as “mingers”, and bantering about “homosexual debauchery”. In stark contrast to the outcome of the previous incident, the club was disbanded for a year, and obliged to take part in diversity training, while only marginal voices suggested that they might actually be exercising a legitimate freedom of expression.

How am I to answer Muslim students’ complaints that attacking women and gay people is not legitimate free speech, but deliberately provocative actions against Muslims are?


THE answer is that certain attitudes remain more consistent with prevailing liberal values than others. But even this liberal consensus is cracking at the seams in today’s university. On the one hand, the huge growth in international students (two-thirds of the student body at LSE, for example) has exposed how liberal values are far more culturally conditioned than we had thought.

On the other hand, these liberal values themselves seem to have degenerated into a post-modern hyperliberalism that honours nothing more than the individual’s assertion of rights (to wear an offensive T-shirt, to self-define as a woman, or whatever else).

In some ways, all this represents the loss of an understanding of the university as an intermediate association (more than a group of individuals, and not simply governed by the rule of law). As students view themselves more and more as consumers of education, their recourse is increasingly to law and the assertion of individual rights rather than conformity to the culture and attitudes that should develop in a learning community.


AT THE LSE, I would like to see the dignity of women, LGBT students, Muslims, and all others upheld, while we engage in a respectful discourse about the challenges and uncertainties faced by all these groups. The possibility of those conversations taking place develops as students encounter one another, trust develops, and norms of respect enable tensions to be confronted.

St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is an outstanding exploration of how intermediate associations hold together. At its heart is the vision of the interdependent body in which no member can relinquish belonging to the others: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12.21).

For a university to be truly universal, students and academics need to understand that opposing views can be raised without having the ultimate goal of pushing our opponents out. Transsexuals need recalcitrant feminists, and atheists need Muslims.

With regard to free speech, St Paul absolutely nails it: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial . . . not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10.23). Universities ought to be communities where young people gain the wisdom to know when to confront the disagreements that arise in culturally diverse communities in a way that moves the debate forward rather than shuts it down. Learning what is timely, appropriate, and effective speech is far more useful than exercising free speech through a megaphone.

So, those of us with responsibility for universities (including chaplains) need to do what we can to restore the sense of a campus’s being a community where students of differing views and cultural perspectives can discuss thorny issues respectfully, and without being immediately co-opted into the agendas of noisy interest groups.

If we cannot model any of this on university campuses, then there is little hope of building that culture of constructive dialogue in the fractious multiculturalism of modern Britain. So the stakes are indeed high.


The Revd Dr James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Economics and Senior Fellow of the LSE Institute of Public Affairs.

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