Controversy has engulfed University College London (UCL) over the past week following the revelation that it has been hosting an annual eugenics conference organised by one of its honorary Professors, James Thompson. For those of us who are aware of UCL history, the irony will not be missed, since the college is arguably the birthplace of eugenics, a once respectable European scientific discipline that has wreaked havoc around the globe.
The supposedly “secret” conference hosted speakers who defended, propagated and rationalised some of the darkest opinions of the past few centuries: from classic eugenicist ideas about race, disability and intelligence to child rape and Trump’s Muslim ban; from Holocaust denial to the idea that all migrants should be deported, and killed if they resist. Thanks are due to the London Student for its excellent reporting in exposing this.
Toby Young, recently and very briefly appointed to the British government’s Office for Students, attended the conference and boasted about it on social media. He resigned a day after being approached for comment on the story. When Young came under fire for his discriminatory and xenophobic comments, he was backed by members of the Cabinet on the grounds of “freedom of speech”.
Jo Johnson, the former Universities Minister, defended Young vehemently, insisting that he deserved his post in the Office for Students and that it was fitting for him to be there. A cursory assessment of Johnson shows that he is consistent in his views, as he is against “No Platforming” or “Safe spaces” which he argues represent a fundamental threat to universities. He even believes that universities which allow them should face fines. He also condemned a protest at UCL against Israel Defence Forces spokesman Hen Mazzig in October 2016, claiming that it was “violent”.
However, closer inspection of Johnson’s approach to freedom of speech reveals it to be convoluted; such freedom, it seems, is to be selective. Those which he opposes and are thus to be denied freedom of speech include the organisers of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) events on campuses trying to raise awareness of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. It was due to his intervention in February last year that IAW events in several universities were cancelled, denying the freedom of speech that he insists upon for others.
Johnson typifies the underlying contradiction that has long been at the heart of the British government’s idea of “free speech”, which is supposed to foster the “free exchange of diverse views”. In practice, students are experiencing the reality that such freedom only extends to those whom the government and its various arms wish to promote, or are insignificant and thus no threat to official ideology.
As someone involved actively in student politics, I know that the brunt of the pressure to deny students free speech is being shouldered by Friends of Palestine Societies, particularly at UCL. A case in point was how a protest by the Friends of Palestine attempting to expose the credentials of the IDF’s Hen Mazzig when he was invited to speak on the campus. The media and UCL authorities condemned supporters and members of the Friends of Palestine Society for being “violent”, whereas the video evidence shows attacks and abuse from the hosts of the event.
Following an investigation of the protest, the government’s controversial Prevent agenda was incorporated into the Students’ Union external speaker approval guidelines until this was picked up by student representatives and opposed. The agenda was behind a disciplinary process which saw five pro-Palestine Muslim students — myself included — undergo an 11 month disciplinary process, which was dragged out, altered and extended, cutting into exam season and the new academic year. Meanwhile, Mazzig’s hosts at the Friends of Israel Society were left untouched and not investigated despite their role in the above incident.
As such, when UCL and its Prevent team claim that the eugenics conference slipped under their radar, I believe them, for no other reason than that it clearly did not disturb their peace nor challenge their ideological position. This reflects the inherent nature of Prevent as a tool of the government used to silence and demonise groups such as people of colour and pro-Palestine activists. It confirms that free speech in the hands of the government and its appointed agents like Prevent officers exists only to protect those views which they support; other views must be policed and censored.
To further denigrate the Friends of Palestine Society, Hen Mazzig has been invited personally by Provost Michael Arthur to speak at UCL on 25 January. Arthur himself has said that he “will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” That is the exact reaction that Mazzig incited; inviting him back negates the veracity of the Provost’s statement. Mazzig is being invited on the grounds that his freedom of speech was violated last time even though the event went ahead and he did indeed speak. The implication is that any time that there is a protest against a speaker, the speaker’s “right to free speech” is violated, regardless of whether the event goes ahead or not. This places the right to protest as a hindrance to free speech, rather than being one of the most important forms of free speech that this country has ever known.
What, then, does “freedom of speech” really mean? And to whom does it apply? From the pattern of behaviour shown by UCL and the government, it seems that freedom of speech means the right to speak on anything, provided that the “anything” in question conforms with the views of the authorities; it’s a modern take on Orwell’s, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Those with access to free speech have to camouflage their real colours to gain the acceptance of the authorities; everyone else is left exposed for the vultures to pick clean.
In the face of further attacks from our higher education institutions and the state, what remains of our ability to express opposition, and what can we do to defend our rights? If UCL and other institutions want to support freedom of speech, they must support their students in their right to protest and oppose speakers, whilst also standing up against the lies and defamatory claims made against student bodies and individuals; that is the university authorities’ duty of care to their students. Moreover, they need to oppose the Prevent agenda where it seeks to curtail genuine freedom of speech, which cannot be selective.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.