The Japanese have a great word, herikutsu, which they use to refer to self-evidently lame arguments or sophistry. Its literal translation is ‘fart logic’ or ‘fart reasoning’, and there were great clouds of it billowing through the House of Commons yesterday when Matt Western MP, shadow Minister for Further Education and Universities, rose to ‘debate’ the government’s proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
The Bill, which contains a raft of measures imposing duties on universities and students’ unions to protect freedom of speech on campus (in England, anyway), is probably soon to become law; the main substantive issue still to be decided was the exact scope of Clause 4. This is a provision essentially creating a new tort in English law, whereby a claimant may sue a university or students’ union for failing to secure freedom of speech.
This, in short, would allow an employee or student at a university to receive financial compensation from the institution if they have suffered adverse effects from expressing their ideas or beliefs. Obviously, the main point of the inclusion of this tort in the Bill is deterrence, and on those grounds it’s a very good idea. No, it won’t in itself redress the imbalance between left and right on campus, but it will at least create some space in which students can be exposed to alternative viewpoints and in which both staff and students can express themselves a little more openly without fear of the consequences.
Mr. Western came up with a tissue of assertions in favour of ‘softening’ the new tort. This would essentially limit the potential damages that would have to be paid out by universities to claimants to direct pecuniary losses – for example, a refund of student fees – rather than compensation for the loss of an entire career or permanent reputational harm (i.e., the kinds of things the prospect of which really exert a chilling effect on freedom of speech on campuses).
The first of Mr. Western’s assertions was that the problem of cancel culture is “largely exaggerated”. It seems astonishing that any sensible person could make that statement in 2023 (although I am aware that the “largely exaggerated” phrase has become a bit of a shibboleth among lefties on Twitter), but it was in any case immediately contradicted by Western’s second assertion, which is that successful claims would impose a huge cost burden on HE providers unless damages were limited. It’s not happening, in other words, but dealing with it will be really expensive – an odd riff on Michael Anton’s Law of Salutary Contradiction.
Read More: At Last, Some Conservative MPs ‘Get it’ When it Comes to the Free Speech Crisis in Britain’s Universities