As a case study shows, freedom of speech in British universities is under threat.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is an organisation familiar to many readers. It is in essence a well-run network of legal activists who share a common Christian faith and who are involved in many of the most contentious disputes in the United States today. It protects the religious freedom of ordinary Americans under the First Amendment, for instance, and advocates up to the Supreme Court and Congress on behalf of the unborn, those vulnerable to euthanasia, supporters of traditional marriage and family life, and, indeed, anyone who strives to live out their life as an orthodox Christian in the US.
The ADF has a global reach too, concerned with the practical consequence of the loss in Christian faith around the world. Here in the UK it has close links to Christian Concern, also a network of active lawyers and centred on a small core of staff based in London. Christian Concern effectively mirrors the focus and work of the ADF in a British context.
To declare an interest: like several contributors to this website, I have been lucky enough to have had training from the ADF: a few years back I spent several happy months over the Pond, learning about US constitutional law and working in Washington DC on alternatives to the Affordable Healthcare for Americans Bill as it wound its way through various committees on the Hill.
A few years ago, both organisations – along with the related Christian Legal Centre – began collaborating on the Wilberforce Academy. The Academy offers free places to students and young professionals, usually in their twenties, to spend a few days on a residential course where they learn a little bit about the issues which the ADF, CLC and Christian Concern campaign on. The Academy has recently been based at Oxford University and in March this year its supporters hired rooms in Trinity College to host the event over a long weekend.
Speakers and workshops at the Academy considered the usual thorny issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and religion in the public square. In Britain it is fair to say that social conservative views on these topics are unpopular ones, and the Academy was bound to attract some flack.
Using hyperbolic language that bordered on defamatory, the University’s unthinking LGBTQ Campaign attacked Christian Concern for promoting an “an actively homophobic, transphobic, racist and sexist agenda” and concluded:
Such views cause social harm rather than social harmony, and we are concerned that, by appearing to support this conference, the University can be presented (by Christian Concern and others) as endorsing these views, and Christian Concern’s views can be legitimised by their connection with the University’s reputation as one of the most important centres of knowledge in the world.
Aside from the ludicrous idea that merely hiring out rooms equates to “endorsing” views aired within those walls, it is somewhat ironic for the Campaign to appeal to the University’s reputation given that that reputation has rested for almost a thousand years on a varying tolerance for free speech and debate in the pursuit of scientific progress and intellectual excellence.
The President (head) of Trinity College, Sir Ivor Roberts, an ex-diplomat himself educated at a Catholic independent school in Liverpool, disappointingly did not echo Voltaire and defend free speech and the toleration of views distasteful to the listener, but played the disingenuous card of ignorance. In a public letter on the College website he wrote:
Trinity has been contacted by a number of current and old members about the holding in College of a conference organised by Christian Concern. When the booking was taken for this conference, which is named the Wilberforce Academy, we were not aware of the organisation’s background. What was known was that the delegates were to be addressed by both a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and another Anglican bishop, and so the request to use Trinity facilities appeared to be perfectly reasonable and one that we would have no cause to question. The name rang no bells.
Now that it is clear what is involved, and as a result of concerns raised by the students about the presence of this conference in College, we have set up a review of our procedures for college use by outside agencies. Trinity takes very seriously its role in safeguarding equality and diversity and will ensure that the policies we have are always respected and implemented fully by all organisations who seek to make use of Trinity’s facilities. Trinity regrets that any current or old members were upset by the fact that we gave houseroom unwittingly to Christian Concern. Any profits from the conference will be given to an appropriate charity.
Trinity is determined to maintain a reputation as an open, tolerant and friendly college.
I think Sir Ivor meant “open, tolerant and friendly to views I agree with”, and he fails (in his unthinking boilerplate response) to appreciate how the ideas of “equality” and “diversity” might actually be in conflict.
Lest you think this is an isolated event, a colloquium on marriage arranged by Christian Concern, called “One Man, One Woman – Making the case for marriage, for the good of society”, was cancelled by two venues a year ago, both times on the grounds that the alleged “homophobia” of campaigners supporting traditional marriage contravened the venues’ “diversity policies”.
The threatening message of the Law Society and Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centres: support same-sex marriage or else shut up.
What is this indicative of? As the libertarian commentator Brendan O’Neil recently warned in an article on why “anyone who values diversity of thought and tolerance of dissent should find the sweeping consensus on gay marriage terrifying”, these are more examples of “how soft authoritarianism and peer pressure are applied in the modern age to sideline and eventually do away with any view considered overly judgmental, outdated, discriminatory, “phobic”, or otherwise beyond the pale.” And as where that leads us, O’Neil concludes,
Through a combination of the weakness of belief in traditional marriage and the insidiousness of the campaign for gay marriage, we have ended up with something that reflects brilliantly John Stuart Mill’s description of how critical thinking can cave into the despotism of conformism, so that “peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes, until by dint of not following their own nature, these [followers of conformism] have no nature to follow”.
Conformist characters who ignore their own natures? Verily, the closing of the British mind.