British government proposals for strengthening free speech at universities cite an American anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ and a British ‘dark money’-funded think tank that has recommended no-platforming Extinction Rebellion.
A leading human rights campaigner said it was “shocking” that an organisation with “extremist and intolerant views” was being given credibility. Climate activists accused the government of hypocrisy.
The plans, unveiled on Tuesday, include appointing a “free speech champion” to the board of the Office for Students, which regulates universities, and new legislation that would give individuals the right to sue universities and student unions for infringements.
Controversially, a white paper outlining the government’s proposals cites ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom) International, the global wing of a controversial US Christian right group that opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage equality and had close links to the Trump administration.
ADF International has spent more than £410,000 on lobbying in the UK since 2017. Last year, openDemocracy revealed that its US parent organisation has spent more than $21m of dark money outside of the US since 2008. The group does not disclose who its donors are, and has gone to the US Supreme Court to defend donor secrecy.
ADF International’s UK office has publicly opposed protest-free ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics, supported calls for “freedom of conscience” provisions to enable medical staff to independently object to providing legal abortion services and were linked to a supposedly ‘grassroots’ campaign opposing assisted dying.
The Department for Education’s white paper makes no mention of ADF International’s anti-abortion stance or its advocacy against equality for LGBT people when referring to the organisation.
“Research by ADF International on threats to free speech can hardly be considered as objective and impartial. It has a partisan anti-human rights agenda on LGBT issues,” said the British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
“The fact that the government has chosen to cite a homophobic hate group gives credibility to the ADF’s extremist and intolerant views,” he added.
“This is shocking but perhaps not surprising. The Conservatives have failed to deliver on their promises to reform the Gender Recognition Act and to ban LGBT conversion therapy. On these issues, government views echo those of the ADF.”
The anti-extremism campaign group Hope Not Hate said it is of “deep concern that the government has cited work by ADF, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Centre has categorised as a hate group”. It added, “The reliance on work by a group such as ADF raises worrying questions over the diligence, rigour and judgements involved in this process.”
The government’s proposals also draw extensively on research conducted by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange. In 2019, Policy Exchange commissioned a report labelling environmental activists as “extremists” who want to “break up democracy”.
The think tank, which has long refused to reveal its financial backers, recommended that politicians and public figures should “avoid endorsing, legitimising, or meeting with” Extinction Rebellion’s representatives.
Environmental campaigners said the think tank’s record on free speech was “disingenuous and politically driven”.
“You can’t in one breath seek to spread moral outrage about censorious universities and students’ unions, and in another demand politicians disassociate themselves from legitimate grassroots campaign groups you want to brand as extremists,” said Rosie Rawle, co-chair of the Young Greens and a student at Queen Mary University of London.
A pivot to universities
ADF supports a ‘legal army’ that fights hundreds of court battles around the world, often using freedom of expression and religious freedom arguments.
The organisation has also taken legal action to support opponents of same-sex marriage and a Canadian pastor accused of hate speech for criticising “the promotion of homosexuality”.
The US group has also become increasingly involved in funding disputes in UK universities. In 2019, it threatened legal action against a Scottish student union council after it decided not to recognise an anti-abortion student group.
Glasgow Students for Life (GSL) was refused affiliation on the grounds that they were seeking to restrict the rights of others. The refusal meant that the group could not receive student funding for events, use meeting rooms or host a stall at the annual freshers’ fair, but did not prevent it from holding meetings on campus.
“I find it very concerning that an external organisation with a history of funding anti-equality campaigns thinks it’s appropriate to get involved in something at this scale,” the president of the University of Glasgow Students’ Representative Council told The Ferret.
She added, “It could lead to worrying outcomes in the future if student organisations find themselves bullied by organisations with greater resources and a bigger platform than them.”
In its 2019 annual report, ADF International says it helped secure affiliation for two other student anti-abortion groups in the UK after they were denied official recognition by their universities.
Survey and spin
The government’s white paper cites a survey paid for by ADF and carried out by UK polling company Survation as evidence of “self-censorship amongst students”.
The survey found that half of students worried that expressing views about some issues important to them while at university would lead to them being “treated differently” by their peers.
However, almost two-thirds of students also said they had not hidden their views about issues important to them. Only 13% said they had hidden political views and just 9% said they had hidden religious views.
ADF International said the findings were confirmation of ‘campus censorship’ and pointed to a legal case it had launched on behalf of the president of a student anti-abortion group at Nottingham University.
openDemocracy has approached ADF International for comment, but it had not responded at the time of publishing.
The government’s claim of a rise in unlawful ‘silencing’ on campuses is heavily based on surveys by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange. However, one Policy Exchange survey seems to have got a key point of fact wrong.
In 2019, the think tank polled students on whether the University of Cardiff should have “guaranteed” the academic Germaine Greer the right to speak at an event after a petition called for its cancellation because of her alleged anti-trans views.
Policy Exchange told the students that “Greer subsequently cancelled her appearance”. However, Greer did in fact speak at the event and encountered “only a dozen” protesters. Hours after openDemocracy asked for comment on this apparent error, the think tank added a footnote to its report acknowledging the event went ahead.
Policy Exchange did not respond to our request for comment.
Announcing the white paper, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said the measures – which were a Conservative Party manifesto commitment – were needed because of “the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”.
According to the universities regulator, however, out of 62,094 requests by students for external speaker events in English universities in 2017-18, only 53 were rejected by the student union or the university authorities.
An inquiry by the UK government’s human rights committee in 2018 “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities must be places where students and academics can express themselves freely and challenge ideas.
“So we are strengthening free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong action is taken if these are breached.”Print