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What is Freedom of Speech in Academia?

Now that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 has become law, what does this mean for universities and what exactly is Free Speech? 

20 June 2024

By Michael Balkow

Firstly, freedom of speech is not freedom of consequence - try for example to spend a day in public life saying everything thought out loud, no matter how trivial, banal, weird, or offensive and see how long it takes to antagonise others, lose your friends, your job, or even your freedoms. 

Oddly, this bizarre method is regularly deployed rather successfully by former American President and convicted felon Donald Trump, via his rambling monologues littered with half-finished sentences and falsehoods. 

For speech to be totally free from consequence, we would have to enter a space where no others exist. An example from popular culture is the film Castaway, where Chuck Nowland, played by Tom Hanks, crash lands on an uninhabited Island giving his 'speech' little purpose or value. His starvation of speech leads to him creating Wilson, a face painted onto a volleyball with whom he communicates, eventually mourning Wilson, as he loses his sole companion at sea. 

The American professor Stanley Fish argues speech is anything but free, and that there are costs to those who produce it and those who are subjected to it. He also does not believe free speech is an academic value, rather that accuracy, completeness, and relevance of speech are values related to academic enquiry and that much work, care and attention is given to produce speech that contributes to this academic enterprise (Fish, 2019). 

I, for example, will allow my students to ask questions relating to the topic we are considering and draw their speech back towards this topic if it veers away. This is not shutting down freedom of speech but allowing for the smooth delivery of relevant academic content to the lesson in question. Even classroom debates I prepare for my students - which can invariably become heated - will have parameters to guide and direct students towards learning through the expression of ideas. 

There is a cynical nature to freedom of speech debates highlighted by Professor John Steel, 'current apparent anxiety around free speech, "cancel culture" and the hysteria around "wokeism" are indicative of attempts by conservatives and the right to feed and sustain a culture war for political ends' (Steel in Steel & Petley 2024:223). Those who argue for the promotion or curtailment of speech, often do so for political gain, the furtherance of their own agenda, ignoring the inconvenient fact that when others object, they are exercising their own freedom of speech. A now familiar cycle of such debates is the 'I've been cancelled' narrative, often peddled by people speaking against vulnerable minorities. When pushback or objection arises, they claim they have been censored, then proceed to publicise their cancellation in the media using speech to amplify how they are unable to speak - ironically, totally undermining their own argument. 

It remains to be seen whether this legislation will have much effect on universities, if we are already spaces of free thought and enquiry, where students can express thoughts and opinions whilst being critical of others claims which may lack veracity. 

However, without parameters set by the unseen moral structures that guide our consideration and concern for others, I would contend that totally free speech ends in incoherence and chaos. Enforcing speech to become freer through government intervention, compelling us by law seems antithetical - it is only through a society that promotes tolerance and freedoms for the most marginal and vulnerable that we can rebalance the skewed equilibrium of those with the most power having the loudest voice. 


Fish, S. (2019) The First How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post Truth and Donald Trump. London: One Signal Publishers. 

Steel, J. & Petley, J. (eds.) (2024) The Routledge companion to freedom of expression and censorship. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Staff member Michael Balkow

Michael Balkow

Michael teaches on the MA and BA Social Work degrees and the Child and Family Health and Wellbeing BSc.

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