'Thought police' warning after Portsmouth University delays Peter Hitchens talk over concerns about his views

(Photo: Unsplash/Loic Furhoff)

Writer and broadcaster Peter Hitchens has warned of censorship at British universities after a talk he was due to give at Portsmouth University was postponed because his views were in contrast to its celebration of LGBT History Month. 

The announcement came days after the Government issued new guidance to protect free speech at British universities over fears that debate around contentious issues like abortion and gender identity is being stifled. 

The talk by Hitchens had been planned for February 12 but the University of Portsmouth's Students' Union announced on Wednesday that it would be delayed until a later date over concerns that his views 'are not necessarily aligned with the Students' Union's vibrant celebration of the LGBT+ community this month'. 

Violet Karapaseva, Union President, said: 'We are committed to ensuring freedom of speech on the University of Portsmouth campus, however recognise that the timing of the scheduled event and the speaker's previously published views do not align with our current celebration of the LGBT+ community.'

Karapaseva did not elaborate on which views in particular had been deemed problematic. 

Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist, responded by warning on Twitter that British students were being taught to fear dissent rather than embrace it. 

'Thought Police alert: Portsmouth University Students' Union have "postponed" a meeting I was due address next Tuesday, because my opinions are unacceptable. Poor old Pompey has suffered so much in defence of English freedom, and this is how it all ends,' he wrote on Twitter. 

In another post, he said: 'Censorship and thought policing are the future. Our schools teach their pupils what to think, not how to think. So they are afraid of dissent, and - given the power to do so - rush to silence it. Heaven help us when these people come into government, law and media in large numbers.' 

Free Church minister David Robertson criticised the announcement, writing on Twitter: 'Some people are more equal than others! We agree with freedom of speech as long as you don't speak anything that we don't like!'

Concerns over threats to freedom of speech at British universities prompted the Government to issue new guidance last week aimed at ensuring campuses remain a 'forum for open and robust enquiry'.  Among those welcoming the guidance was Dr David Llewellyn, Chair of GuildHE and Vice Chancellor of Harper Adams University, who said it was important that students be taught how to engage with different perspectives.

'Higher education institutions are champions of free speech, places where ideas and views - even those that some might find offensive - can be rigorously discussed and challenged. Our staff, and others contributing to our educational and research activities, must be able to freely consider contentious issues,' he said. 'We also have to be able to work with students to develop their ability to critically analyse what is being said, weigh up different arguments and contribute to the debate. 'That is why we welcome this new guidance, which will provide greater clarity on the rights and obligations for freedom of expression, particularly in areas such as the balance between our commitment to free speech and legislation to prevent radicalisation.' Following the publication of the new guidance, former equalities chief Trevor Phillips warned in The Telegraph that free speech was being curtailed on campuses in favour of 'rule of the mob' and that vice-chancellors acting like 'frightened children' needed to take a tougher stand.  He said that a no-platforming policy that had originally been drawn up in the 70s to stop the National Front from gaining a foothold on university campuses was now being used in an 'ugly' and 'authoritarian' way to bar opponents from sharing their views with students.  'People use what was originally a protective proposition to damn others with whom they disagree,' he said.  Phillips said university culture was becoming increasingly like the Stasi, East Germany's secret police organisation, where 'the expression of a non-sanctioned opinion becomes a crime - and that's where we have got to on some campuses'. He said: 'The debate becomes not the most persuasive argument but who can gather the loudest shouting voices. What you are really talking about is the rule of the mob - that has come to campuses. I find all of those things incredibly threatening.'

Last year, pro-life groups raised concerns about censorship after being barred from two Scottish universities. 

Glasgow Students for Life was denied affiliation by the Students' Representative Council (SRC) at Glasgow University, while in a similar move, the Aberdeen University Students' Association (AUSA) prevented the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society from affiliating. 

Without affiliation, groups are unable to benefit from the privileges of official university clubs, such as funding and access to campus buildings for events. 

They are also not able to have a stall at the student freshers' fair, one of the most important events in the university calendar for advertising university clubs and attracting new members. 

Lauren McDougall, president of the SRC, said at the time that the council objected to the anti-abortion campaigning of Glasgow Students for Life. 

'The executive view affiliation as a form of endorsement because affiliated clubs and societies are permitted to use our branding in their promotional material,' she told the Scottish Herald newspaper.

'Given the SRC's campaigning on a number of related social issues over the years, including support for the recent Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland, it would be contrary to our ethos to endorse a society which calls for limited rights for women.'

Writing in Aberdeen University's student newspaper The Gaudie, the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society accused AUSA of censorship.

'AUSA's willingness to censor dissenting speech, even though such speech is protected by UK and EU laws, should be chilling to any fair-minded student who believes that the free exchange of ideas is essential to a university's ethos,' it said.

'Moreover, this decision exhibits AUSA's hypocritical enforcement of tolerance. Although our students' association prides itself on being radically tolerant, its willingness to block the formation of a minority-view society illuminates the lopsided nature of how tolerance is actually practised on our campus.'

Academics have also reported experiencing intimidation and harassment after publicly expressing their views on transgenderism, particularly proposed changes to the law to allow gender self-identification.

University of Reading professor Rosa Freedman said she was 'scared' for her safety after opposing gender self-identification. 

The law professor said her office door had been doused in urine and that an anonymous caller had told her she 'should be raped and killed' for her views.

'This evening I was followed by students on campus, and ended up hiding behind trees because I was scared for my physical safety,' she said. 

'I have been open about being a survivor of sexual violence, despite which young male-bodied persons have seen fit to abuse me verbally about rape or follow me in the dark into secluded spaces.'

Last month, Alice Sullivan and Judith Suissa, of the UCL Institute of Education, said that trans activists were intimidating academics 'who do not adhere to a particular line on gender and transgender issues'. 

In an article on the blog of BERA, the British Educational Research Association, they complained of a 'misogynistic name-calling culture' being pursued by trans activists who want to close down all debate on transgenderism.

'The people under attack are not mavericks or extremists,' they wrote.

'They are feminists who question the trans-orthodox view that biological sex is a social construct while gendered identities are fixed and innate. They also seek to defend women's sex-based rights.'

They continued: 'When academics disagree with a piece of research, they would normally encourage debate, critique and more research. However, in the case of transgender issues, activists have derailed this process repeatedly.

'This is particularly troubling given the need for research into the rapid growth in the numbers of young people presenting with gender dysphoria.'

They said that in the current climate, students were being denied the opportunity to hear a range of views and that certain topics had become 'off-limits'.

They also claimed that some female students in particular had reported feeling unable to speak up about their views in class.

They called upon universities to safeguard academic freedom and take disciplinary action against students or staff who engage in campaigns of harassment. 

'For anyone concerned about language and meaning, and committed to democratic values, it is deeply troubling to see reasoned disagreement – often motivated by a concern with rights and justice – routinely labelled as "fascist",' they said.

'It is precisely within a climate of engaged, informed and intellectually rigorous debate, and not in some rarefied 'marketplace of ideas', that ethically and politically troubling ideas can be challenged and criticised.

'Part of the point of going to university is to be exposed to a range of ideas that may challenge, inspire and even unsettle, and to develop the ability to engage with, articulate, defend and criticise arguments on a range of topics.

'This involves developing the disposition to listen to and appreciate nuanced discussion.'