Students and censorship go together like a pair of Norfolk cousins. Gone are the days of our bright young things rocking up to university to experiment with mind-altering drugs; now they dabble in reality-bending politics instead. Where once sit-ins and protests were held on campus to protest the incarceration o f Nelson Mandela, or the war in Vietnam, now they have become ‘safe spaces’, where mildly conservative speakers, Israeli politicians and even the police can be hounded from the premises, and newspapers banned.
Step forward Jo Johnson MP, brother of Foreign Secretary Boris, himself the poster child for opponents of free speech on the ground that one never knows what lunacy will spill from his mouth next. Jo is carving out a niche for himself as a junior bit of cabinet dressing, being the incumbent minister for higher education. A post once held by David ‘Two Brains’ Willets now belongs to one of a pair of Johnsons. How times change.
Jo, though, is clearly keen to make his mark on the sector he is nominally in charge of, having suggested that Universities have a legal responsibility to uphold free speech. That was the long and short of it: no suggestion of serious sanctions if they failed to comply, just a rap on the knuckles in the national press for misbehaving unis and unions.
It’s a welcome development, in a lot of ways. It really is about time somebody in authority read the riot act regarding the escalating calls to censor everything that has ever offended anybody, ever. (How humiliating, for example, that it took sponsors and donors at Oxford to persuade university authorities to stand up to the Rhodes Must Fall movement.)
But it would feel more authentic if it wasn’t for this government’s – and this Prime Minister’s – record on free speech and liberty in the past. It is they who have presided over the creeping increase in ‘hate crime’, not because people are more bigoted, but because the scope of legislation has been broadened so shockingly. It is also they who are fully behind the implementation of Lord Leveson’s suggestions to gag the press, as well as Theresa May’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’.
It’s one thing to lambast students for their zealous censorship. That’s why so many people do it quite so liberally. Actions speak louder than words, though; perhaps Mr Johnson and the government in which he serves should think long and hard about their own views on curtailing freedoms, before criticising others.