Freedom of speech and Equality, Diversity & Inclusion rights

Professor Tim Soutphommasane

When I started as Oxford’s first Chief Diversity Officer six months ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But I did expect to encounter contests relating to free speech, and questions about its relationship with equality, diversity and inclusion.

Recent events highlight these as very much current issues, and ones about which there is a range of genuinely held views within our collegiate University. That is how it should be within a vibrant academic institution.

As we enter the summer break, it feels timely to reflect. The debate and protest that occurred relating to Kathleen Stock speaking at the Oxford Union in May might have generated more heat than light.

Let’s start with a basic point. As a collegiate University we have, rightly, been clear about our commitment to freedom of speech. But that doesn’t mean diminished support for equality, diversity and inclusion. The University remains committed, as stated in our Equality Policy, to fostering a culture and environment in which the rights and dignity of all staff and students are respected.

These two commitments can often be presented as being in opposition to each other. They shouldn’t be. Supporting freedom of speech should be accompanied by care and concern for students and staff. Supporting equality, diversity and inclusion, meanwhile, should mean a willingness to engage with views with which one disagrees.

Over the past few weeks, I have heard from students and staff who have been concerned that members of Oxford’s LGBTQ+ community have experienced targeted harassment – and have felt their dignity has been under attack. This is not something we should accept: anyone in our collegiate University who experiences threats should report them, and those responsible for threats should be held to account. But even short of reaching such levels, I understand and acknowledge that recent debates have caused hurt to those from the LGBTQ+ community, particularly trans staff and students.

It is essential that Oxford is a place where all students and staff feel welcomed and feel that they can belong. Whether it is prejudice or discrimination directed at people on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity – or on the grounds of sex, race, disability, religion, or any protected characteristic under law – such conduct has no place here.

The University’s position on academic freedom and freedom of speech is also clear. As expressed in our statement on freedom of speech, while the University may make rules concerning the conduct of debate, it should never prevent speech that is lawful. We encourage robust civility and all views to be given the chance of a hearing, while being subject to questioning, scrutiny and indeed lawful protest. We take steps to ensure all such exchanges happen peacefully.

Properly understood, commitments to free speech and to equality, diversity, and inclusion are not mutually exclusive. The two go hand in hand. We should ensure the voices of minoritised groups are given the chance to be heard. Discussion about issues should not lead to members of our collegiate University experiencing bullying, harassment, discrimination, or victimisation. 

And nor must discussion be indifferent to the power of speech itself. Recently in the London Review of Books, our colleague Amia Srinivasan (Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory) helpfully reminded us that when some of us – particularly those who are not in positions of power – speak out against something, it shouldn’t be characterised as akin to ‘cancelling’ others:


No doubt it can be painful, infuriating or upsetting to be called a racist or a bigot or a sexist or a transphobe. Most of us would find it horrible to be told that we aren’t worth engaging with, that our views are socially unacceptable or merely a function of demography. But that it is painful to be on the receiving end of such remarks doesn’t mean that one’s own rights to ‘free speech’ are thereby imperilled; it might simply be a reminder that speech can wound.

Amia Srinivasan 

Speech can wound and damage; but speech can also be formative. As a political theorist, I am naturally familiar with the writings of John Stuart Mill, whose voice is frequently invoked in considerations about freedom of speech. According to Mill, there ‘ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered’.

Even for a seminal defender of free speech such as Mill, though, the defence of liberty was concerned with more than just a right to say what you wanted for the sake of it. Free speech mattered for Mill because it enabled the discovery of truth, and also because it was necessary for self-realisation.

So speech matters, at least in part, because it enables people to express their individuality. Which is why, in any debate, we should be prepared not just to hear from those whose voice is louder or stronger.

Then again, part of the problem might be that we are so often fixated on the idea of a debate. Perhaps one reason we often generate more heat than light is that we associate the exercise of one’s speech with engaging in the theatre of adversarial debate. What if freedom of speech isn’t reduced to an attempt to win an argument? What if we saw in the exchange of views also an exercise from which we can understand and learn from others?

For those of us who believe both in free speech and equality, diversity and inclusion, that is one prospect towards which we should be prepared to work.