Free speech on college campuses has become a major international issue. There are concerns about the influence of powerful lobby groups and furtive actors, including the Chinese government, on academic research. There are also fraught debates about the limits of tolerable expression linked to culture wars on either side of the Atlantic.
An understandable response is to keep your head down, or to treat it as someone’s else fight. “I do think a lot of academics don’t actually rate free speech as highly as you’d think,” the legal scholar Eric Heinze told this column recently.
A survey in the UK last month showed growing support among students for both censorship and stricter policing of speech – 36 per cent of respondents in the Higher Education Policy Institute poll believed academics should be fired for using material that “heavily offends” students.
But is free speech really under threat in Irish universities? Tim Crowley, assistant professor at the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin, decided to seek an independent view about his own institution. He asked the United States-based non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (Fire) to audit UCD’s student code of conduct and two related policies.
The results are in – and they don’t make pretty reading. Fire, a non-profit group which has surveyed more than 480 colleges and universities in the US, puts UCD in the lowest “red light” bracket. This is based on earning at least one red light ranking for policies that “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech.
At public institutions in the United States, Fire points out, “red light policies are unconstitutional”.
Yellow light warnings are for policies which, “by virtue of vague wording, can too easily be used to restrict protected expression”, while a green light is for those of no concern.
Fire gave UCD five yellow warnings and three red, based on how it would comply with the free-speech obligations of a public US university.
‘Respectful and courteous’
The UCD student code requires that you “communicate with your fellow students and staff members in a respectful and courteous manner”, and “ensure that your actions don’t have a negative impact on yourself, others or the university”. Fire describes this as a vague “catchall provision” that “could be used to punish protected speech, such as a tweet that criticises the administration”.
Descriptions of what constitutes bullying and harassment are also too broad, Fire says. “A single, off-colour joke” could be deemed as misconduct, it points out.
As for a ban on using technology to communicate “offensive” or “indecent” material, these “are overbroad terms that could include just about any material that is subjectively disfavoured,” Fire says.
UCD’s dignity and respect policy is also criticised for placing “vague expectations on members of the university community” to treat everyone respectfully. Fire raises particular concern about a reporting tool that solicits anonymous reports from students and staff about their fellow members for perceived breaches.
The wording of these codes, it should be noted, are very similar to those that apply in a general workplace environment. So why should college campuses be treated differently?
“The university campus is by nature very different from a general workplace environment, such as that of a commercial enterprise. They each have very different goals,” Crowley replies.
He quotes the 1967 Kalven report at the University of Chicago: “A university faithful to its mission… is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.”
The codes audited by Fire may seem rather abstract but they have short-term and long-term effects, Crowley adds. “The short-term effects are destructive of the university; the long-term effects are destructive of democracy.
“In the short term, speech codes stifle debate and inquiry, and encourage ideological uniformity. Students will hesitate to offer their opinion, to avoid being berated by fellow students, or by their instructors, for advancing unpopular, offensive, or so-called ‘problematic’ views. Lecturers or tutors who try to keep a discussion going in such an atmosphere may in turn be putting themselves at risk of being perceived as, or accused of, acting insensitively.
“In the long term, the effects on society are perhaps already evident. Transforming the university into a place where the central aim is to ensure that young adults will not be offended, a place where they will not be exposed to dissenting voices, produces graduates who have not learned to talk to or live with those who hold other views, resorting instead to tribalism, demonisation of others and even violence.
“Indeed, studies show that people with the highest level of education tend to have the lowest levels of exposure to opposing viewpoints. And this has awful consequences for democracy.”
UCD has been under close scrutiny in recent years because of a number of partnership projects with China. In 2020, the university was forced to drop proposed changes to its academic freedom policy to allow for “different interpretations” of the concept after a backlash from staff.
However, “I don’t think UCD is an outlier in getting such a damning report from Fire,” says Crowley.
Indeed, Trinity College Dublin’s core ethics policy is rather ambivalent about censorship. It states: “The College promotes an environment of freedom of expression and intellectual enquiry and is committed to ensuring it is exercised in such a way as shall not interfere with the rights of others, or breach national legislation.”
Asked for his view on the Trinity document, Crowley says: “It should state clearly what rights trump the right to free expression; and it could be mindful that the right to freedom of speech is the most important of all – for without it, we cannot even begin to subject all other rights to scrutiny.
“And as for ‘breach national legislation’, that too is vague. Perhaps it just means ‘within the law’, which appears in the UCD statement too. But what about speech that is expressly intended to criticise, undermine, and ultimately overturn national legislation, and which indeed explicitly calls not just for interference with, but for the abrogation of the legally recognised rights of others?
“One could consider the pro-information campaign of Irish students’ unions regarding abortion in the late Eighties and Nineties in that way…
“Massive changes in society have been possible only through free speech. How do measures that get to be voted upon gain the popular support to initiate change? Free speech. But there is often a perception that once such changes have occurred, free speech about such issues must be from then on curbed. That is anti-democratic and illiberal.”
Crowley believes “we urgently need something like Fire in Ireland, that is, an advocacy group, independent from the universities and from government” on the issue. In the meantime, he encourages academics who share concerns about free expression to join the Heterodox Academy, a US-based collaborative of over 5,000 academics and students who are committed to promoting open inquiry. “I have been a member since 2019, but there are only two others in UCD, just one in TCD, and in the whole island of Ireland less than 15 members altogether.”
The negative effects of censorship are not just confined to colleges and society, Crowley says. “It is also worth pointing out the effects on the students themselves, in particular, on their mental health.
“Words and ideas may indeed produce discomfort, even distress. And in the face of rising cases of mental health and anxiety on campus, university administrators and, frequently, the faculty, have come to think their role is to ensure the avoidance of distress in students. But this may well be exacerbating the mental-health problem.
“As [psychologist] Jonathan Haidt and President of Fire Greg Lukianoff point out, ‘some well-intentioned protections [against free speech] may backfire and make things worse in the long run for the very students we are trying to help’.”
Peer pressure to conform is an added factor, potentially exacerbated by social media. Joint-winner of this year’s Irish Young Philosopher Awards, Cecelia Dowling, a fifth-year student at Scoil Pól, Kilfinane, Co Limerick, explored this very subject, asking the question: “If thought patterns and processing are becoming increasingly similar, should we not be alarmed?”
Crowley admits most university students are unaware of the codes, and few are likely to say they are affected by free speech concerns on a daily basis.
“The issue, then, is not about taking up arms on the side of the students who are demanding free speech,” he says. “It is, rather, to show to students the value of free speech. This won’t be easy. Thinking, real thinking, is hard.”
To read the full Fire report on UCD’s policies see https://timcrowley.substack.com/p/fire-report-ucd