Is school a place for free speech – at all costs?

The sacking of an Eton teacher over his views on feminism sparked debate on free speech in schools, says Megan Mansworth
29th December 2020, 12:00pm
Megan Mansworth


Is school a place for free speech – at all costs?
Should Schools Be Places Of Free Speech - At All Costs? The Sacking Of Eton Teacher Will Knowland Has Raised Important Questions, Says Megan Mansworth

The recent debate over the sacking of Eton teacher Will Knowland fiercely divided not only Eton staff and alumni, but also the education community and the media more broadly. 

English teacher Knowland uploaded a lecture to his YouTube channel, and was subsequently sacked because of the ideas he expressed in it about feminism and the role of women

This raises questions about the extent to which free speech has a place in schools, even when the contents of such speech may be offensive and prejudiced, or question dominant ideologies. 

Appealing against his dismissal, Knowland argued that we should not prioritise "emotional safety over intellectual challenge". What is striking here in Knowland's statement is a clear belief that, by ensuring that students feel emotionally safe, we somehow restrict their opportunity to be challenged intellectually. 

Free speech: Protecting children from extremist ideas

But children can be protected from extremist ideas - like the misogynistic ones propagated by Knowland - and still be given intellectual challenge. What matters is how ideas are framed.

Knowland's lecture was not positioned as a means of interrogating problematic and questionable ideas. Instead, he introduced students to misogynistic ideas framed as legitimate debate. 

Some proponents of free speech at all costs have argued that to restrict free speech in any form risks only allowing a narrow range of viewpoints and ideas in our schools. 

Eton teacher Luke Martin, who felt so strongly about the importance of free speech at all costs that he resigned over the matter, criticised the "worrying trend" of a "progressive" ideology. He suggested that: "If you disagree with it, you're excluded; if you think differently, you're not tolerated."

Yet, in a time of anti-radicalisation agendas such as Prevent, surely free speech has its limits when we are talking about discourse that introduces students to radical and extreme ideologies? 

In fact, in an age of easily accessible extremist ideas on the internet such as thriving forums of "incels" (short for "involuntary celibates"), whose discussion topics range from stereotyping of women as golddiggers to - at the extreme end - rape-supportive discourse, it is clear that students wouldn't have to look very hard to find sources of information that go against what Knowland hyperbolically calls the "radical feminist orthodoxy".

Students don't need to be introduced to such ideas as if they are legitimate debate - they should be framed as radical, extremist and questionable. 

Broadening students' world view

A couple of times in my career, I have been shocked to come across young people aged around 15 or 16 who have already developed strong anti-feminist or xenophobic views. I considered it my job to try to broaden these students' world view and to discourage unchallenged "free speech" of the harmful or prejudiced variety within my classroom. 

Because, as much as I believe that students have the right to their own opinions, there are instances when we must also stand by what is morally right if we want our education system to facilitate the development of empathetic, socially conscious young people

Students can already access free speech about anything and everything on the internet, which has often helped them to develop these views. In fact, with the accessibility of extremist ideologies on social media, the issue may be that there are not enough moderate voices in society, rather than not enough exposure to extreme ideas. 

There is a place in the classroom for free speech, but only within certain parameters - it cannot contravene others' rights to be free from intolerance, prejudice or harmful language. 

To some extent, it is, of course, worth introducing students to alternative viewpoints, in order to develop their understanding of argument and debate. But, ultimately, school needs to be a space in which the best values of a society are held up and shared. 

If we want to teach our students the principles of equality, fairness and justice, free speech has its limits. There is no place for someone playing devil's advocate when it comes to concepts and ideas we should, as a society, broadly decree as unacceptable - such as racism, sexism or other forms of prejudice. 

The ideas espoused in Knowland's video lecture are so far from reasoned debate as to be ridiculous and utterly irrelevant - but they are not any less harmful for that. 

Free speech is an important value in our society. But, at the same time, when we introduce ideas or concepts to our students, it must be balanced with careful consideration of the consequences both on individuals and society. 

Megan Mansworth is an English teacher and PhD student. She tweets as @meganmansworth 

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