Who gets free speech in the university classroom?

Higher education news has been awash in recent months with the comments by the University of Oxford’s Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson:

“I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. They don’t feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views.

“And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable’.

“If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.

“Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind. It is difficult, but it is absolutely what we have to do.”

Source: Cherwell Online.

Richardson is not alone in this view that ‘uncomfortable’ opinions belong in higher education classrooms, regardless of whom they offend. The backlash against ‘safe spaces’ in university classrooms has been broad and included Theresa May and Jo Johnson. Objectors often cite the issue of ‘free speech’ and the related one of ‘academic freedom’. If we can’t express views in classrooms, isn’t this tantamount to censorship? If academics are limited in what they can say in the classroom, does this infringe their academic freedom? Relatedly, some have argued – like Professor Richardson – that ‘uncomfortable’ views are essential to a good education: ‘education is not about being comfortable’.

I would absolutely agree that education is not about comfort per se. I agreed with Professor Mary Beard’s argument that student satisfaction, as sought in many teaching evaluations, is absolutely not the highest ideal to which education can aspire. Indeed, student evaluation scores are notoriously unreliable, unduly influenced by gender bias and bias against other minorities. Students are learning new things at university, and having new experiences. If they’re never surprised, or even a bit uncomfortable, we’re doing it wrong.

However. A big however. Arguments about bigotry in the classroom, and how teachers should be free to express ‘uncomfortable views’, miss two fundamental distinctions. The first is between intellectual challenge and challenges to one’s right to exist. When you are having to argue for your own right to exist, your ‘challenge’ is qualitatively different to the person who is arguing on an abstract level. The second is between official views as an object of study, and uncomfortable views as held by someone who has power over you. In missing both distinctions, arguments such as Richardson’s erase the students who may be affected by these views. They assume that everyone will be able to argue against a homophobic professor from an abstract and empowered position: something that Richardson herself (along with straight, senior staff) might well be able to do, but from which students – particularly LGBTQ+ students – are categorically excluded. By defining a ‘good education’ as one in which a student can and does become a sort of Batman of Bigotry – fighting bigots, however powerful, inside the classroom and out – we exclude from that ‘good education’ any student who is affected by that bigotry, and who doesn’t have the strength, or the power, to engage with it directly.

The first problem I want to discuss is this: Richardson et al present bigotry as an essential part of higher education, an intellectual challenge that is necessary for higher learning. This simply isn’t true. If I want to challenge my students, I identify where they are now – what do they know already, and what can they do already? – and ask them to learn something new, or something slightly more complex than their current stage. I might ask students on a Renaissance Literature module to analyse sonnets – and indeed I might ask them to grapple with complex theories about early modern sexuality and gender. I might ask them to read some difficult, but interesting, queer theory.

What I wouldn’t do is find some homophobia and ask them to refute it. Firstly, because that is unlikely to be the point of the class. ‘Not being homophobic’ should be the default, not a learning outcome. Secondly, because homophobic views are, by definition, not based on fact. By and large, they’re based on someone’s feelings about what is or is not ‘icky’. The study of ‘ickiness’, and of disgust, is actually very interesting – but as we’ll see in the next section, interesting to study, not to refute. Refuting homophobia doesn’t require sophisticated arguments or prodigious intellectual skills, because homophobia itself isn’t based on such. The reasons that homophobia is wrong are not intellectually challenging. They’re obvious. ‘Gay people are people’ is not an intellectually challenging argument to make.

Secondly, the kind of labour that arguing against a homophobe requires isn’t intellectual, but emotional. Specifically it’s emotional labour that disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ students in the room. (In a similar way, arguing against racism in the classroom is disproportionately draining to students of colour). Bigotry isn’t just a view like any other, because it’s based on denying the fundamental humanity, or rights (or both) of a particular group. If I argue with someone about, say, the merits of pineapple on pizza, or the causes of the First World War, we both have an equal stake. Neither view has the potential to affect our lives. However, if a gay person is expected to argue against homophobia, they are not arguing on an equal footing with the homophobe. They’re fighting for the right to exist, and this is a violent and emotionally draining experience. Importantly, it’s only draining for the person whose right to exist is threatened. It’s tiresome for me, a straight cis woman, to argue against a homophobe, but it’s not emotionally draining and violent in the same way that it would be for a LGBTQ+ person – because my existence isn’t being threatened in the same way.

This inequality means that, while the refutation of bigoted people that Richardson envisages is happening in the classroom, affected groups are getting a fundamentally inferior learning experience. While the straight people might be having a lovely time bandying arguments about homophobia back and forth, others will be fighting for survival – thus taking away their energy from learning. It’s the difference between talking to someone with whom you disagree, and someone who doesn’t think you should exist. Only one of those is frightening, and if we allow bigotry into the classroom, we impose that frightening experience onto a particular group of students. We demand emotional energy of marginalised students, asking that they defend their own humanity instead of learning. This is fundamentally bad pedagogy. It’s also cruel, violent and (according to the 2010 Equality Act) illegal: you’re limiting the access of a particular group to the learning in that classroom.

Of course, this inequality of emotional labour also applies to reading work with bigoted views and engaging intellectually with it. However, the distance that comes from reading someone else’s work makes the experience less immediately violent (if still deeply unpleasant) than having to argue in person. There are pedagogical things that can be done to acknowledge the violent potential of this kind of work, and the effect it may have on specific groups. Tutors can warn students in advance and allow them to absent themselves if traumatic experience makes this necessary. They can present the work as prima facie bigotry: if bigotry is agreed by all to be bigotry, it’s still horrible to read, but much less horrible than if you think someone in class might agree with it (and be allowed to express their agreement).

Students from marginalised groups actually have to engage with bigoted material all the time. The difference is that they are in control. They are engaging intellectually with the material and analysing it. Reading a homophobic essay in the context of learning about (say) nineteenth-century sexuality is very different than arguing with an real live homophobe. Especially one who has power over you. The teacher-student relationship isn’t always a simple binary, of course, but tutors will mark your essays and write reports on you: this is someone whose approval students need. Tutors at Oxford may be responsible for a third to half of someone’s contact time (my average teaching at Oxford was 1 weekly tutorial and 1 fortnightly tutorial, so one tutor took up ⅔ of my teaching and the other took up ⅓ of it). A student’s self-esteem (intellectually at least) will be influenced by their tutor’s comments and behaviour.

If it’s exhausting to have to argue for your own humanity (and it really, really is), how much more emotionally draining, and scary, would it be to have to do so with someone who has this kind of power over you? Many students would understandably give up. By saying ‘it is absolutely what we have to do’, Richardson demands an impossible amount of emotional labour from LGBTQ students – labour that she herself wouldn’t have to give. Of course, Richardson was a student once, and although she is married to someone called Thomas, I wouldn’t presume she’s straight (bi erasure isn’t cool, even when we hate someone). But if she ever were in the position she demands of students (and that’s uncertain) it’s been an awfully long time. She’s certainly far enough away from it that the ‘we’ in her demand is, frankly, insulting. We are not all in this together.

I’m not here to argue that teachers’ personal views should be policed (I want to put homophobes far away from any kind of paying job, but I’ll hold my hands up – this is a personal view, not a pedagogical one). Teachers can, honestly, hold any view they like in their own heads. What they shouldn’t do is impose it on their students. When you express bigotry in the classroom, you put marginalised students in an impossible position: they either speak out – a huge amount of emotional labour and risk, as I’ve said – or they remain silent, which entails an equally unacceptable amount of suffering. Listening to someone argue that you shouldn’t exist or have certain rights, and being unable to speak out, takes up energy that students can’t then spend on learning.

If a teacher is telling students about their personal bigotry, they’re not only wasting time that should be spent teaching: they’re excluding marginalised students from learning. Louise Richardson might enjoy such classes, and have a great time arguing, but that’s pedagogically irrelevant. Academic leadership doesn’t mean hiring the people you’d want to teach you: it means hiring the people who can teach your students – all of them. If there are teachers at your university who express bigoted personal views in class, this means there are classrooms at your university where marginalised students cannot learn. It means there are marginalised students at your university who are being excluded from the experience to which they have an equal right. This is not only illegal: it’s immoral, and it’s fundamentally inimical to good pedagogy. No amount of star-studded research or charismatic lecturing can compensate for pedagogy this bad.  


Beard, M. (2012). A Point of View: When Students Answer Back. BBC Magazine. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20531666 [Accessed 10/10/17]

Boring, A., Ottoboni, K., & Stark, P. B. (2016) Student evaluations of teaching are not only unreliable, they are significantly biased against female instructors. LSE Impact Blog. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/02/04/student-evaluations-of-teaching-gender-bias/ [Accessed 10/10/17]

Dimbleby, F. (2017). Oxford SU “angered and dismayed” by vice-chancellor homophobia comments. Cherwell Online. http://cherwell.org/2017/09/04/oxford-su-slams-vcs-comments-on-homophobia/ [Accessed 10/10/17]

MacNell, L., Driscoll, A., & Hunt, A. N. (2015). What’s in a name: exposing gender bias in student ratings of teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 291-303.

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