The Bishop of St Albans asked a question about universities offering classes on free speech, during a debate on the use of philosophy in education on 1st November 2022:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, it is not only about critical thinking; we need to have a place where those ideas can be exchanged, which is about free speech. I understand that the University of Cambridge has recently appointed a philosophy professor, who is teaching classes in free speech. Does the Minister think this is something we need in all our universities, and should it start in our schools as well?
On 31st October 2022, the House of Lords debated the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in the committee stage. The Bishop of Coventry spoke in the debate in support of various amendments, with reference to use of religious and spiritual spaces:
The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I support Amendments 5 to 7 in particular. I shall follow on from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, because I had similar concerns about unintended consequences. I wonder whether your Lordships would mind me sharing some rambling thoughts that have come through my mind. I was not going to, but the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, to nothing before 1680—I think it was 1680—strengthened me.
In many countries in Europe, today is Reformation Day. I happened to be in Dresden yesterday, where you cannot help but see the statue of Martin Luther, which I was admiring. That is not irrelevant to these discussions. The history of academic freedom in Europe—freedom of expression and of religion—will have different views about the Reformation, but I cannot help celebrating the fact that, 500 years later, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation said that they agreed over the doctrine of justification by faith, which was the great thing that divided the Churches at that time. As this fascinating debate has continued, I could not help thinking that, if there had not been a suppression of academic freedom at the time, there may not have been that great bust-up, which caused a lot of tearing to society and Church. I simply share that to reinforce that which we are all committed to—academic freedom and freedom of speech—and to recognise that institutions did not always get it right. Certainly, the Church has not.
On 28th June 2022 the House of Lords debated the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, at its Second Reading.The Bishop of Coventry spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, intense competition for students, jostling for promotion among lecturers, vigorous, often intense and sometimes rancorous debate, with dashes of sharp practice and occasional mob violence—not a preview of some future Office for Students report but a snapshot of the early academic career of Augustine of Hippo. One of his first publications was advice to lecturers and, significantly for this debate, he later asserted that “By force we can make no one believe.” I will make some general points about the Bill and then raise three more specific issues.
Timothy Garton Ash speaks of three “vetoes” that silence the ability of people to express themselves: shouting them down, the “heckler’s veto”; declaring what they say to be offensive, the “offensive veto”; and, in extreme cases, threatening to kill people, the “assassin’s veto”.
Sadly, it seems that we have seen each of these techniques in action within higher education, as some of the evidence submitted to the Bill Committee demonstrated.
“When people are too scared to express their genuinely held and legally protected beliefs, that is very dangerous for democracy.”
On 10th December 2021 in the House of Lords the Archbishop of Canterbury held a debate on freedom of speech. His opening and closing remarks are below, and the full debate including the contributions of Peers and the Opposition and Government response, can be read in Hansard, here.
Moved by The Archbishop of Canterbury: That this House takes note of contemporary challenges to freedom of speech, and the role of public, private and civil society sectors in upholding freedom of speech.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Leader of the House, the usual channels, all noble Lords who have taken the trouble to be here today and, especially, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, for answering on behalf of the Government in order that we may have this debate. It is a return to an Advent tradition, interrupted in recent years by elections and pandemics. Should your Lordships worry that I am infectious in some way, I have been tested to the limits of testing. I have my granddaughter’s cold, for which I would like to record my grateful thanks.
We on these Benches have our critics—I have a large number—but for all our present failings you would be hard-pressed to find a more disastrous move by the Lords spiritual than when, in 1831, 21 of them lined up behind the Duke of Wellington and opposed the Great Reform Bill. Had they voted the other way, it would have passed. The people, denied their rights, responded with riots, and bishops were particularly targeted, some with violence. In Bristol, the Bishop’s Palace was burned down. A dead cat was thrown at my predecessor Archbishop Howley, narrowly missing him but striking his chaplain in the face. “Be glad it wasn’t a live one,” Howley is reported to have responded.
I start with this dive into the past because it illustrates a present point. The grey area between, on the one hand, peaceful protest and reasoned criticism and, on the other, incitement to hatred or to violence is one that we are still trying to navigate today. The Church of England knows about that. I must start by suggesting that our society should never follow our historical example of coercion, Test Acts and punishment. There is still a prison at Lambeth Palace at the top of the Lollards’ Tower, with room for eight people. It was used for the Lollards—I have a little list.
“search engines free of advertising, social networking freed from the blind pursuit of profit, messaging services which do not mine our data—and all protecting the rights of the child? Perhaps the Government might be willing to explore this kind of radical intervention—social media in public service—in this vital area”
On 10th December 2021 the Bishop of Oxford spoke in a House of Lords debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on contemporary challenges to freedom of speech and the role of the public, private and third sectors in upholding it:
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, it is a great privilege and honour, as always, to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, one of my distinguished predecessors. I am grateful for this timely debate and to the most reverend Primate for his very comprehensive introduction. In a few days’ time, as we have heard, the scrutiny committee of both Houses will publish its report on the online safety legislation: a potentially vital web of provisions to prevent harm to individuals and, I hope, to society.
“civil society and faiths can create and convene safe spaces where difference can be spoken with care and understanding can be deepened, truth revealed and progress made towards a common good”
On 10th December 2021 the Bishop of Birmingham spoke in a House of Lords debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on contemporary challenges to freedom of speech and the role of the public, private and third sectors in upholding it
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, as we have been hearing, speech is one of the most precious gifts for humanity, freedom of which is easy to take for granted, as we may do from week to week in this House, but even easier to abuse. Speech is so important that, at this season of the year, for people of Christian tradition, we even call the son of God’s appearance the word of God—the word made flesh
In the same scriptures in which we read that story, there is warning of the danger of the use of the tongue:
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
Of course, I do not refer to anyone who stands on the platform at Speakers’ Corner or any other venue of that kind. We remember also
“the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”—
the blaze of instant phone recordings or a tweet out of context.
On 13th May, the Rt Revd John Inge, Bishop of Worcester, received a written answer from Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon on the Government’s assessment of the restriction of journalism abroad.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester:HL3569 To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the extent to which countries have used COVID-19 as a pretext to introduce restrictive measures against independent media outlets and to arrest and intimidate journalists for providing critical coverage of the relevant government’s COVID-19 response.
On 13th February 2020 Lord Sheikh asked the Government “what progress they have made towards the adoption of a formal definition of Islamophobia.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked a follow-up question:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, we on these Benches deplore all attacks on any religious groups and we note particularly the huge rise in the deeply concerning issue of attacks on Muslims. The Minister will be aware of the media reports on Imam Asim of Makkah mosque in Leeds and his comments on free speech. Does the Minister agree with me and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury that Muslims and all religious groups deserve better media? Does he further agree that, alongside law, we need to seriously address this through education?
On 4th November 2019 Lord Leigh of Hurley asked the Government “how many universities in England have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism; and what steps they intend to take in respect of those which have not”. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, asked a follow-up question:
The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Council of Christians and Jews, founded in the depths of the Second World War by Chief Rabbi Hertz and Archbishop William Temple. I applaud the noble Baroness’s long history of standing up for freedom of religion and belief. Like the noble Lord, the CCJ hears numerous reports of no-platforming, intimidation and lack of free speech. I fully accept that universities are autonomous, but will the Minister look for ways in which pressure can be applied to ensure that these standards are kept? Does she agree that mere exhortation is not really working?