Fierce row over free speech at top school

Bitter debate: Eton’s headmaster says Knowland’s lecture violated UK equality law. © Getty

Is Eton suppressing free speech? Tomorrow, Britain’s most elite school will face an appeal from a teacher it says it had no choice but to fire – over a controversial anti-feminist video.

At his home near the picturesque English town of Windsor, the teacher sat at his desk, opened his laptop and pressed record.

But this was not another Zoom lesson or online tutorial. In a rambling 30-minute lecture posted on YouTube, Will Knowland, an English teacher at Britain’s prestigious Eton College, argued that, far from being a toxic stain on society, the patriarchy is actually a force for good.

In the lecture, Knowland espouses views that many today consider abhorrent. He argues that women are to blame for the patriarchy because they prefer strong men over weak ones, and provides dubious statistics on issues such as rape.

The decision to upload the video, and his refusal to take it down, had drastic consequences for the tutor: Knowland was sacked after two lawyers concluded that the lecture broke equality law.

It is a move that has provoked outrage among pupils and parents alike, who accuse the school of censorship. More than 2,000 pupils and alumni have signed a letter calling for Knowland’s reinstatement.

And another member of staff, theology teacher Luke Martin, has resigned from his position as “Head of Perspectives” in protest, accusing the headmaster of promoting progressive ideology in a style akin to “religious fundamentalism”.

Indeed, from schoolchildren to politicians, many are rushing to defend the teacher.

“Schools must be places where children are taught all sides of these big questions and allowed to make up their own minds,” said Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union.

Some commentators go even further – it is the legislation that is wrong, not Knowland, says former MP Ann Widdecombe: “The only guilty party is the law itself: oppressive, anti-libertarian and lacking in proportionality.”

One thing is clear: as the row hits national headlines, Eton’s headmaster is feeling the heat.

Simon Henderson became the youngest head in Eton’s history when he was appointed five years ago. Since then, he has gone on a modernising mission, keen to shake off the school’s elitist image.

He turned over its facilities to key workers in the first lockdown and pledged £100m to help disadvantaged children.

But now some say “Trendy Hendy” has gone too far.

Eton has a long history of exposing its pupils to controversial ideas. The school has hosted everyone from Julian Assange to Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It even has a debating hall modelled on the bouleuterion in the ancient Greek city of Priene.

In the description on his YouTube video, Knowland quoted a member of the school’s own alumni, George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Yet Eton’s provost has hit back at critics. “Eton will never cancel debate,” said Lord Waldegrave last week. But, he added: “everyone accepts that such freedom cannot be absolute”.

For now, Will Knowland’s fate hangs in the balance: an appeal hearing will not make a final decision until tomorrow.

So, is Eton suppressing free speech?

Eton mess

Yes, say some. Knowland’s lecture may be offensive to some, but his views should be heard. If he is silenced, his ideas cannot be interrogated. Eton has been at the forefront of free speech for 580 years – it should not insulate its students from controversy now. As journalist Sarah Vine says: “No one in an open society, least of all a teacher, should be punished for pushing boundaries.”

No, say others. The boys at Eton today will become the men of tomorrow. Knowland’s lecture contains misogynistic ideas – and many of his claims are without evidence. He may have the right to express any opinion in public – but he does not have the automatic right to be a teacher at Eton. And the headmaster’s hands were tied – lawyers concluded the speech broke regulations.

You Decide

  1. Do you think Will Knowland should be reinstated as a teacher at Eton?
  2. Should there be any limits to free speech?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to a newspaper defending a person or group whose own ideas you do not personally agree with.
  2. Hold a class debate on the motion: free speech is being eroded in modern democracies.

Some People Say...

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895), American abolitionist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that freedom of speech is a fundamental principle of modern democracy. The ancient Greeks were pioneers of free speech as a democratic principle. The word “parrhesia”, meaning “to speak candidly”, first appeared in Greek literature at the end of the 5th Century BCE. Centuries later, in 1948, the UN recognised free speech as a human right in the International Declaration of Human Rights.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds the distinction between free speech and hate speech. Most people agree that inciting violence or issuing threats to others should be outlawed. But the “criminalisation of language (or behaviour) which may be unpleasant, may cause offence but which is not inciting violence, criminality, etc” remains controversial, says Liberty, a UK justice and freedom campaign group. Some say the UK needs a written constitution (like the US) to set out a set of clear rules and freedoms on speech.

Word Watch

Eton College
Fees at the 580-year-old boys’ school amount to £42,500 per year. Alumni include the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and British Princes William and Harry.
Patriarchy
A system of government or society in which women are largely excluded from power. Knowland argues that men and women are biologically and emotionally different, and thus ending the patriarchy is against nature.
Abhorrent
In his lecture Knowland expresses a wide range of views, some more controversial than others. He has said he was not endorsing the ideas, but rather providing students with a “different point of view.”
Julian Assange
The Australian activist who founded WikiLeaks, which released thousands of internal documents from various governmental and corporate organisations. He spent seven years in London’s Ecuadorian embassy before being arrested by UK police last year.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
A Russian novelist and political prisoner who helped raise awareness of Soviet gulags worldwide. He is said to have been so impressed by the questions he was asked at Eton that he chose to send his son there.
Bouleuterion
A bouleuterion, meaning council house or assembly house, was a building in ancient Greece which was used for meetings of the city council in a democratic city state.
George Orwell
The author is best known for his dystopian novels Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell is a pen name; his real name was Eric Arthur Blair.
Provost
The chairman of the Governing Body of Eton College. Lord Waldegrave was also a cabinet minister in the 1990s.
Ann Widdecombe
A British politician, author and TV personality. She was a Conservative Member of Parliament for 23 years.

Subjects

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