New government post to tackle cancel culture on university campuses

19 February 2021

The Christian Legal Centre’s Roger Kiska comments on the government’s appointment of a new universities ‘free speech champion’.

If there is any truth in Schopenhauer’s belief that all morality is based in compassion, then we indeed live in immoral times as exemplified by the cancel culture.

The cultural and ideological divide is now so deep that some in the political and academic class not only aggressively disagree with what conservatives and Christians think, but they wish to stifle our ability to speak on certain sensitive issues all together. Worse than that, some in the cancel culture have gone so far as to want to prohibit those who even hold views different than their own from having any public platform whatsoever. Perhaps nowhere has this been more acute than on university campuses.

Given this troubling and expanding trend, the government has announced the appointment of a free speech champion for university campuses, under the auspices of the Office for Students (OfS). Under the plans, the OfS would require universities to actively promote free speech and would have the power to fine universities if they breach this condition or otherwise censor speech. This power would extend to students’ unions. Individuals would also be able to seek damages in court if they suffered a loss as a result of free speech breaches.

University censorship

A recent study of free speech restrictions for all 137 registered UK universities found that 35% (48) of UK universities have incredibly restrictive attitudes towards speech; 51% (70) of universities are overly restrictive and need improvement, and only 14% (19) of universities are friendly enough towards speech and academic freedom so as not to warrant external investigation. Another study, done in 2018, suggested that 54% of UK universities were actively censoring speech based on viewpoint and 40% of the remaining institutions had overly burdensome and unnecessary speech regulation. The study also found that students’ unions were the most likely to be active censors of free speech based on viewpoint, with university administration not lacking far behind.

Welcome news

At the Christian Legal Centre, we have had front row seats to witness the hostility of the cancel culture towards the Biblical Christian worldview on far too many occasions. As such, we welcome the government’s new initiative, in that it gives teeth to the already robust corpus of legislation that exists to protect freedom of expression, but which for some reason or another has not permeated into the collective unconsciousness of institutions of higher education. Some of the statutory instruments include the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010, the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, the Education Reform Act 1998, and the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The UK also has committed itself to several international treaties which obligate it to respect free speech and academic freedom on university campuses including the International Covenant on Economic, Culture and Social which has explicitly recognised such rights as falling within the remit of the Covenant.

The voice of experience

In recent years, the number of Christian Legal Centre (CLC) cases involving universities has increased significantly. Some are well known to our supporters, others we have not publicised because of the sensitivities of the issues involved or that publicity would be adverse to the cause of serving our clients.

Trouble in Sheffield

Felix Ngole is one of our better-known clients, having won a landmark ruling at the Court of Appeal. So important was Felix’s case that it was cited in the Secretary of State for Education’s report on free speech and academic freedom in higher education published just this month. The report sets out the proposed changes in how the government will seek to guarantee free speech on our nation’s university campuses.

Felix is a Christian student who was removed from his social work course at the University of Sheffield after he made comments on his personal Facebook page in support of Biblical teaching on marriage and sexual ethics. Felix was told that, by posting his comments on Facebook, he “may have caused offence to some individuals” and had “transgressed boundaries which are not deemed appropriate for someone entering the Social Work profession.”

Counsel for the university went so far as to argue that even expressing Biblical beliefs about homosexual behaviour in a Bible study should be enough to disqualify someone from the social work profession. In responding to a question during oral arguments, she went so far as to say that Mother Theresa might not be fit to be a social worker in modern Britain because of her views.

The Court of Appeal disagreed and called the university’s position overly rigid and lacking reflection. They found that holding a deeply held religious belief was different from discriminating against a service user and that Felix had never discriminated against anyone during his studies and gave no indication that he would.

However, this was not an isolated incident at the University of Sheffield, as we have supported another graduate level student who was silenced and ridiculed by his department head because of his Christian faith. In that instance, a student was denied the right to work on the project of his choice despite both its academic and clinical relevance because the proposed project had a Christian element. That same student was mocked openly in class, leading to the university finding that the department owed an apology to the student in question for its anti-Christian behaviour. Despite this finding, the professor never faced disciplinary proceedings for his behaviour.

Social workers beware

Two other cases that CLC successfully lent support to students, but which we did not publicly highlight, evidence just how bad it is at the moment for those who express Christian views. In one case, a social work student was subjected to disciplinary proceedings and was barred from her work placement because she volunteered for a pro-life organisation on weekends. The fact that this student publicly advocated for the unborn child in a wholly lawful way during her private time was enough for her to suffer potentially being removed from her course. With the assistance of CLC she was restored to a work placement and the matter was dropped by the university.

In another case, a student lost an entire year of her studies because of disciplinary proceedings resulting from simply responding to questions insistently put to her by LGBT colleagues about what Christians believe about homosexual behaviour. Despite making every effort to avoid the conversations, she eventually expressed what the Bible said on the matter. Happily, despite the prolonged disciplinary proceedings which were extremely stressful and harrowing, she did graduate and found a job as a social worker where she currently thrives.

Academic freedom

The cancel culture has not only affected Christians. James Caspian is a self-employed United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapy registered psychotherapist who specialised in working with patients who were medically transitioning, or considering medically transitioning, their gender. This was done within the clinical setting of a private gender clinic. He saw patients referred to him by the doctor who ran the clinic. At times he also carried out assessments of patients’ suitability for treatment. He did this work for ten years, between 2007 and 2017.

By 2013 it had become apparent that there was a change happening in the presentation of the patients he was seeing. They were getting younger, and the sex ratio was changing. More young women, and some younger men, often with quite complex mental health problems, were applying for treatment. A surgeon from the European Professional Association for Transgender Health, who specialised in gender reassignment surgery, expressed to the Applicant that he was worried by the numbers of patients requesting reverse surgery; that is those regretting their transitions and de-transitioning. He lamented that there was no research on this phenomenon.

Inspired by this conversation and his own clinical observations, James decided to research the matter. In 2015, he enrolled in a part time M.A. in Counselling and Psychotherapy at Bath Spa University. The core of the M.A. was a piece of research which sought to focus on those who regretted their gender reassignment and were de-transitioning.

After getting initial approval from the university to pursue the research, it was later decided that the matter was too politically incorrect and could lead to negative outside campaigning by transgender advocates. In other words, despite James’ extensive first-hand experience in the area and the legitimacy of his research, his dissertation was rejected because of potential negative campaigning from those with a vested interest in keeping the existing status quo.

The case was submitted to the European Court of Human Rights in December, and awaits review.

Pro-life student groups

On university campuses across the country, students’ unions are adopting totalitarian pro-abortion policies which seek to prohibit the affiliation of pro-life student groups and no platform any pro-life activities. Such policies are not only woefully anti-democratic, they are often unlawful. In the last year, legal challenges were successfully brought against the Students’ Unions at Glasgow University, the University of Strathclyde and Aberdeen University. Cardiff University’s pro-choice policy was also amended following a challenge, to remove any semblance of direct discrimination or restrictions on freedom of association. The Christian Legal Centre played significant roles in challenging the pro-abortion policies at both Aberdeen University and Cardiff University.

We are currently working with another pro-life student’s group which is facing active censorship of its social media posts.

Wilberforce Academy

No platforming of speakers has also become a huge area of contention. Christian Concern, for example, has held a week-long worldview conference for Christian students called the Wilberforce Academy since 2010. Over recent years it has been increasingly difficult for the Academy to find a venue on university campuses, often with an initial booking being taken and then later revoked for undisclosed reasons, or because of cancel culture warriors at those colleges. Academic institutions have tried to demand that the Academy pay for its own security, despite outside individuals and groups being the cause of disquiet.

The benefit of free speech

At the end of the day, free speech is a benefit to each of us, no matter what side of the ideological spectrum we find ourselves. For one, ensuring freedom for all to have their voice heard in the public square helps us talk out our differences rather than deepening the divide by silencing groups of people because of what they believe. After all, abhorrence for individual freedoms, speech ranking high among them, is a hallmark of authoritarian government found in places like China, Belarus and Saudi Arabia. Such narrow thinking should have no place in the United Kingdom, especially on our university campuses which are meant to be a free marketplace for ideas. If the Christian Legal Centre’s rapidly growing number of clients who have suffered some form of detriment at their universities evidences anything, it is that we need greater protection on our university campuses more than ever. We therefore welcome the efforts of the OfS and look forward to its work, praying that it indeed makes a difference.

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