The case for promoting free speech, debate and enquiry in the social work classroom

The culture of social work education encourages self-censorship, but the development of critical thinking and the need to respect diverse opinions is critical for practice, argues academic Jane Fenton

Photo: blacksalmon/Adobe Stock

By Dr Jane Fenton

The government has just proposed new measures to strengthen free speech at university on the basis that there have been recent attempts to censor speech and quell diverse or controversial opinions. This article explores that issue within the social work classroom.

Firstly, there may be some features of the current cohort of social work students that lend themselves to a potential difficulty with free academic enquiry and debate. For example, recent research has shown social work graduates to be significantly less skilled at critical thinking and significantly less assertive than a UK normative sample (Sheppard et al, 2018).

Several articles have also tried to address the problem of social work students being reluctant to ‘speak up’. Social work educators like myself might have noticed the reluctance of students to speak out in classroom, and have probably also noticed a marked difference from, say, 10 years ago.

This appears to go hand-in-hand with a comfort in following organisational rules and regulations rather than critically thinking about ideas and challenging them. My own, and others’, research has investigated various aspects of those concerns (Fenton, 2016).

Students split on free speech

Recent research has also demonstrated that, in general, a minimum of only 30% of students would choose a free speech position on, for example, inviting controversial speakers to come to campus.

Furthermore, a minimum of 20% would choose no-platforming in the interests of the emotional safety of minority groups. There is, therefore, a significant malleable ‘undecided’ group’.

Students became 14% more pro-censorship or pro-free speech when they had been primed with a narrative about the need for emotional safety or in support of free speech, respectively.

This clearly speaks to the power of context and the potential influence of ‘priming’ students for classroom expectations of engagement. There is also a gender disparity here, with women being particularly pro-emotional safety and therefore censorious – important when the majority of social work students are women.

This censorious tendency appears to be based on an underpinning assumption that offending ideas cause actual harm, because the paragraph was explicitly about ‘the importance of protecting disadvantaged race, gender and sexual minorities from harm’.

This assumption is a contested idea rather than a fact and much has been written, for example, about the deleterious impact that protecting students from ideas they might find uncomfortable can have.

For example, we may be teaching students to think pathologically, by encouraging patterns of thought that are alarmingly similar to those that contribute to anxiety and depression (eg interpreting remarks in the least charitable fashion and assuming slights).

Also, we may be underpreparing students for employment and ‘the real world’ where one must engage with people whose ideas we may find objectionable. This may be especially true for social workers, who deal with often distressed and angry people who might not be choosing their words carefully.

‘Impact and interpretation is everything’

The notion of protecting marginalised groups from emotional harm may also be particularly acute in the social work classroom, given that social work is concerned with promoting diversity and inclusion. It might be that this context provides fertile ground for caring social work students to self-censor in the name of protecting people from notions of emotional harm.

The idea of ‘microaggressions’ stemming from critical race theory is also important here. There is no defence against an accusation of committing a microaggression, because intention is unimportant, and impact and interpretation is everything.

As above, interpreting an interaction in the least charitable way (that is, to assume racism) is again, detrimental to good metal health as any CBT programme would demonstrate.

The recent report from Universities UK on racial harassment, for example, draws heavily on a paper by Rollock, who gives an example of a microaggression as saying: ‘You are so articulate/well-spoken’ to a person of colour.

According to Rollock, this really means, ‘It is unusual for someone of your race to be so intelligent/ educated/well-read’. Although this is a very cynical, and perhaps wrong, reading of the situation, that does not matter, because if the listener thinks that is what is meant (ie it is a microaggression) then it simply and factually is.

Reluctance to express opinions

The social work classroom is a place where oppression on the basis of protected characteristics is discussed more than in many other subject classrooms. So, once again, the problem of being reluctant to express opinions may be particularly acute in that environment.

But really, is it any wonder that students might self-censor? The fear of being ‘in trouble’ for saying something wrong, or for causing offence is not unfounded – there are numerous examples in the media of people losing jobs, being ‘cancelled,’ being hated on Twitter and just being a persona-non-grata for voicing opinions that are not in keeping with current orthodoxies.

And, of course, there are many examples of people being abused on social media and elsewhere for promoting the rights of marginalised groups. Intolerant zealotry is not the prerogative of one side of the political cultural spectrum!

In the classroom, however, how brave would a young student have to be to question whether a person with a penis can actually be a woman, whether biology might contribute to the different choices made by men and women or whether differences in outcomes between different ethnic groups might be caused by an interplay of factors, for example poverty, English language proficiency, cultural issues, etc. and not only racism?

And to ask those questions at a time in their life when testing out their own ideas, making mistakes, learning to think critically and to debate civilly and intelligently is new, difficult and personally risky? They would have to be enormously brave indeed, and self-censorship must be extremely tempting.

How we come to knowledge

According to Jonathan Rauch, the seminal liberal thinker who builds on the work of JS Mill, knowledge is produced in liberal democracies through a system of questioning anybody by everyone; a system that rejects the idea that an overall authority gets to decide what is knowledge (as in totalitarian regimes) and rejects the idea that all points or beliefs are of equal value.

On the latter point, theories are put forward into the public realm and are tested, the evidence is scrutinised, and theories are then either debunked or upheld (for the time being). It is through this system that we have a relatively settled body of knowledge with much frenzy and debate around the outskirts.

So, for example, we teach evolution, not creationism in schools and university. Evolution is considered knowledge. People are free to believe in creationism, but it won’t be taught as knowledge in educational establishments.

Many examples of this settled knowledge can be traced back to debate in the public realm, dissent, civil action and eventual acceptance; for example, equality between the sexes and races. Attempts to forward theories of superiority have been well and truly debunked and so have no place in academic debate.

Debunked and contested ideas

Understanding this delineates which ideas are acceptable for academic enquiry and debate and which, usually the more obnoxious ideas, have been debunked due to lack of evidence.

The recent debates on whether self-identifying as a woman should simply be declaratory, or whether this undermines the rights of biological women, for example, are very different from white supremacist debates because the former issue is still very much contested whilst the latter has been wholly discredited due to having no evidential basis.

Therefore, social work students should actually be encouraged to think, to debate and to disagree about gender identification ideas, in keeping with the university’s role in liberal knowledge production. Educators need to be comfortable with this and to encourage an environment where debate can flourish.

The main idea in JS Mill’s On Liberty (1859) is that the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling” must be challenged in a liberal democracy. Society needs sceptics, critical thinkers and people who have the courage to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, once again making it important that educators encourage students to flex those intellectual muscles.

Distinction between abuse and offence

When I have discussed free expression with fellow academics, I am often reminded that ‘hate speech’ is not allowed. Once again, I think that educators need to be clear and confident about the difference between abusive and harassing speech that is an expression of hatred towards a person or group and a genuinely held opinion or question about a contested idea.

Abuse and harassment are never acceptable, but voicing an opinion that some might find offensive is.

The Public Order Act (1986), for example, prohibits ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ with or without the intention of causing harassment or distress. So, shouting abuse is never acceptable.

In Scotland, the newly passed Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill extends the ‘stirring up’ of racial hatred offence to other protected characteristics. Neither piece of legislation prohibits properly expressed opinions which some people might find offensive. In fact, the Scottish justice minister Humza Yousef stated, during the Bill’s passage, that people should have the right to be ‘offensive and controversial’.

Clearly, however, misunderstanding abounds about this as the recent blunder by Merseyside police demonstrates. The police force erected a large billboard saying ‘being offensive is an offence’, which is simply not true. The police apologised later.

Given that even the police are confused, it is again little wonder that educators and students often feel on shaky ground. And, of course, when on shaky ground, it is very tempting to say nothing.

Professional ethics and requirements

There is also the added complexity about professional social work duties as the case of Felix Ngole. Mr Ngole, a devout Christian, had posted on Facebook that homosexuality is a sin, and had been removed from his course. The case went through various stages to end up at the Court of Appeal.

Several factors in the judgment have the most relevance here:

  • Social work is a regulated profession in the UK.
  • As such, responsibilities come with using social media and other public platforms, in that personal expression must not undermine confidence in the profession.
  • The language Mr Ngole used to describe his objection to homosexuality was judged to be such that homosexual users of social work services might feel that they would not be treated in a fair and non-discriminatory way.
  • However, whereas the language needed attention, Mr Ngole’s right to express himself was upheld.
  • The Court of Appeal differentiated between the holding of opinions and discriminatory behaviour (which would have, rightly, been in contravention of the Codes). From one, we cannot assume the other. Controversial opinions can be held.

Social work education is in the business of producing social workers who can think critically, engage ethically and understand complexity, uncertainty and competing perspectives and tensions.

According to Sheppard et al, mentioned earlier, we are not wholly successful in that endeavour. To be so, we need to encourage students to think and debate, to subject their opinions to scrutiny (demonstrating moral courage), to have their thinking challenged and even changed, and to be properly engaged in critical learning.

It is our duty as educators to create an environment conducive to this learning and the only way to do that is to equip students with the above free expression framework (comprised of legal, professional, ethical and knowledge parameters) to allow them to safely express themselves.

This is especially important for social work students, who will be intervening with families where frustrations and stresses abound and where many notions of ‘correct’ orthodoxies may well seem irrelevant. Teaching students to be tolerant of diverse opinions is crucial – in the classroom and in practice.

Jane Fenton is a reader and associate dean for learning and teaching at the University of Dundee and has spent most of her social work career in statutory criminal justice social work (CJSW) in Dundee.


Sheppard, M., Charles, M., Rees, P., Wheeler, M. and Williams, R. (2018) ‘Inter-personal and critical-thinking capabilities in those about to enter qualified social work: A six-centre study’, British Journal of Social Work, 48, pp. 1855–73.doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcx143

Fenton, J (2016), Organisational professionalism and moral courage: contradictory concepts in social work? Critical and radical social work 4(2) 199-215

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12 Responses to The case for promoting free speech, debate and enquiry in the social work classroom

  1. Michelle Janas April 23, 2021 at 8:13 am #

    Thank you for writing this article Jane, it is so refreshing to read.

    Having spent 20yrs in medical research, where debate and scrutiny is accepted as the fundamental tenet of progress, I have been alarmed to discover the active suppression of ideas within the social work community – particularly in education.

    Last summer a self-appointed LGBT group were to meet in consultation with Social Work England after the publication of an open letter (in Community Care) to Isabelle Trowler. As a 46yo lesbian I was interested in being involved but was summarily uninvited before the group had even met. My crime and misdemeanour appears to be that I held views contrary to the group organiser’s, views that made others feel ‘unsafe’. These controversial views were that I felt accepted and supported as a lesbian within social work and that I was concerned that a ‘hierarchy of oppression’ was being generated whereby the voices of some groups were being prioritised rather than equal weight being given to all nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act. ‘Social work values’ were cited as a justification for my dismissal. I appealed to the academics at Birmingham University who were part of this LGBT group, but was ignored.

    I am happy to publish all of my correspondence on this matter, including my own letter to SWE, if anyone feels I am exaggerating.

    I remain deeply concerned of the influences of a small group of students and academics, the social work Twitterarti if you will, who consider themselves the social justice warriors of our age. Their policing and silencing of others should alarm us all. My own experience with the LGBT group had extending consequences, as shortly after my dismissal my invitation to speak at an online lecture series about working in a care home throughout covid suddenly disappeared. This lecture series was being organised by the same influential group who decided I did not hold the correct views on LGBT issues.

    I could go on and write extensively on this topic as Jane has. Perhaps one day I will. In the meantime I urge the social work community to consider the consequences of holding such firm and fixed beliefs on morality and what constitutes accepted and acceptable opinion.

  2. Nihat April 23, 2021 at 10:38 am #

    It’s not free speech if the framework is the prism of law. Legislation isn’t necessarily enacted to reflect consensual orthodoxy is it? Laws are oppressive oppressive when they reflect class ascendancy and class interests aren’t they? This article veers very close to the definitions the ironically authoritarian Free Speech Union are pushing hard. If teaching institutions and tutors are inncapable of creating a learning environment where students/trainees can critically evaluate information that says more about the institutions than any supposed self censorship. The problem with reticence isn’t due to some undefined internal wokeness when the theories taught are narrowly defined and teaching reflects that orthodoxy. How could a student/trainee challenge and reframe the curriculum when dissent itself is policed to conform to what is deemed acceptable? Campaign to decolonise learning versus seeing merit in the CRED report would be an interesting free speech debate promoted by academics wouldn’t it? If educators posit that there isn’t necessarily an objective truth, that personal opinion can be reframed as a personal truth, than why the surprise I might get offended by a supposed innocuous comment? Many truths, much potential offence surely? Social work academics need to make their minds up about what they are for and not hide behind “a regulated profession” comfort blanket. If knowledge is contested, than get in the competition on your terms. If there is an market place of ideas, tell us the price and consequences of choice. Actually, the families I work with and the communities I work in are a lot more nuanced in their interactions with me than the article supposes. It’s simple really. Even the most bigoted and challenging “customer” in the end judges me by my competance and usefulness whereas irrespective of my professional merits my pigmentation and religion always defines me to my colleagues. I know which offends me more. Now that’s worthy topic for a tutorial.

  3. Tom J April 23, 2021 at 3:12 pm #

    Good article. We live in divisive times where nuance is often not allowed in discussions. There can be an attitude of ‘you are either with us or against us’.

    For example I have seen some social work academics write off the entire Sewell Report as it fails to support popular wisdom. Whereas I think that we should be able to meaningfully look the messages before writing it off.

    Hear are some of the key messages that deserve reflection:

    – Gangs and gang related violence is linked to broken families and not restricted to black communities.

    – In 2020 white students are the least likely to go to university at 32.6%. 50% of black pupils and 71% of Chinese pupils went to university. Although ethnic minority students are more likely to dropout, achieve lower exam results, and have lower earnings after graduating.

    – People who are black are three times more likely to be arrested, but juries are not more likely to convict ethnic minority defendants.

    – Based on 2019 figures; Black Caribbean women earn more on average (£12.09 an hour) compared to white women (£11.21 an hour).

    – 15 percent of all families are single parent, but 63% of black Caribbean children, and 43% of black African children grow up in a one parent household.

    – Poverty affects educational achievement more than race. Poor pupils lag more than two years behind in areas such as Blackpool, Knowsley and Plymouth which are three areas which are almost exclusively white.

    – Poor white boys achieve the lowest GCSE grades compared to any other group. Only 39.1 percent of children who are white got grade 5 or above in English or Maths, compared to 49% of children who are Asian.

  4. Murdo April 24, 2021 at 8:31 am #

    If facts matter then Dr Fenton needs to correct the reference to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. What Humza Yousef claimed in the debate is not enacted in the legislation. You can’t demand critical thinking and confidence to challenge orthodoxy from students if you obfuscate the claimed intention of the Scottish Justice Minister and the actual clauses in the enacted legislation. It’s not really free speech when thought is policed to ensure it’s “properly expressed” is it?

  5. Susan April 25, 2021 at 8:40 am #

    When the current dead end social work education ditches the narcissism that sits the student above the people they are supposedly being prepared to serve, we can return to
    knowledge that has roots in evidence. And our ability to express a coherent original thought, heretical or otherwise. On my first day in university we were told by our tutor that we had as much expertise in what social work knowledge is as herself. I wondered then and I wonder now why I had to go through a process of ‘education’ to confirm what I supposedly already knew. Ditch the pretence that social work theory and its application has the rigour and originality to justify an MA so we can get on with the task of being public servants again. Critical thinking starts with the confidence to own social work for what it is rather than obsess about proving its “profession” credentials.

  6. Nigel April 26, 2021 at 10:09 am #

    Perhaps education institutions are using flawed admissions criteria to select their students. More likely though their selection reflects the requirements of moribund buraucracy driven workplaces. In which case they are spot on with their processes. The last thing a budget driven, evidence free decision making service needs is an intellectually robust critical thinker. The edifice of mediocrity and self serving management depends and feeds on worn out staff with a get through today safely mindset. If too many social workers were allowed space to think and the energy to reflect on what they are asked to do, the pretence of relationship based, needs determined, co-produced services would be exposed as the sham it is. Better to nobble academics, stuff SWE with non-social workers, undermine universities by championing the likes of Frontline. No wonder the last decade has been not only the time of failure but validation of failure. It seems that even with the almost monthly legal and enquiry sanctions highlighting the neglect and abuse of users of services, shame has no place in social work ‘ethics’. Critical free thinking is tantamount to self harm in that culture. Why would any student or relatively newly qualified social worker chose to hurt themselves. If academics wish to promote free speech and critical faculties they can start with SWE.

  7. Liz April 26, 2021 at 11:17 am #

    Ummm. A well written article with some interesting points and references. although I think some conflation of ideas.

    The excellent responses here somewhat undermine the OP position. I am not sure what evidence there is for the idea cancel culture is significantly shutting down free speech in SW or indeed that cancel culture in general overrides the contribution of structural inequality in terms of harmful impact. The wokeness trope is our current moral panic that uses a double bind that ends up doing what is criticizes others for, cancelling the cancellers. In my lived experience of practice ( as a white worker) race is still barely on the table as a topic at work, and probably would not be at all but for the death of George Floyd. I am staying interested why this is.

    I don’t accept the analysis here about microaggressions being over-sensitivity or that dwelling on/challenging them is a bad strategy for personal mental health. Dwelling on that argument seems a route to not taking racism seriously or taking responsibility for ones own actions when hurt has been caused. I think we as white staff can do better than that and should.

  8. MHSW April 26, 2021 at 11:34 am #

    A refreshing article and pleasantly surprised it made it on to community care. Important to have a balance, instead of relentless diatribes by Wayne Reid telling people what to think.

  9. Andrew April 26, 2021 at 9:28 pm #

    For those of us who are students in Scotland cancel culture is real and it does shut down diversity of opinions, often in very menacing ways. Nationalism expressed with venomous racist tropes are so prevalent that no student can safely express anti-Independence views for example. Lecturers are equally cowed and offer us little protection in these toxic debates. Murdo is right, there is a correction that needs to be made to the reference about the Bill. I wholeheartedly agree with Susan about the narcissism point. Time we framed injustice to class interests rather than hurt personal feelings.

  10. Tony April 27, 2021 at 2:48 pm #

    Thank you for the very relevant article. Having finished a SW masters recently I can attest to the dearth of debate and the apparent fear of many students of speaking up in class which I do feel had alot to do with being afraid of coming out with the ‘wrong thing’ and being challenged. As an older student I often felt obliged to voice differing or controversial opinions often simply to try and stimulate some debate with other students. Having worked in several health and social care teams as a support worker prior to my MA, I left university feeling that the classroom cosseted students from the realities of how harsh and challenging working with people in difficult situations can be. I rekon that alongside critical thinking, empowering students to feel confident in expressing themselves and feeling around difficult subjects should be a mainstay of social work education.

  11. Northern Lass April 29, 2021 at 10:39 am #

    Dr Fenton gives me hope that reason and facts are still valued by some academics. Dispiriting that on my course teaching staff promulgate anti- vaccine, covid is a hoax, sub-antisemitic insinuations about media control, England is living under a White dictatorship sanctioning murder of black people narrative. When opinion is presented as immutable fact, it’s not surprising that we shut up is it? The disturbing thing is many of my fellow students internalise that we are in a Matrix of State control where we have no autonomy beliefs and will be taking that hopelessness and victimised mindset into practice Liz.


  1. The case for promoting free speech, debate and enquiry in the social work classroom | The Scottish Organisation for Practice Teaching - May 11, 2021

    […] This article in Community Care is about free speech/debate and students self-censoring when it comes to certain contentious or sensitive topics (in the interest of protecting people from ‘harm’ usually). It also might help educators think through the difference between legitimate discussion of difficult issues and hate speech or contraventions of our codes of practice. […]