Education

We need to talk: freedom of speech on university campuses

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‘Snowflake’ has become something of a buzzword in recent years, often appropriated by the political right (and a particular favourite phrase of Piers Morgan’s) to describe millennials who are too easily offended. While the word has indeed been over-applied, and used to be evasive of the real issues, there is some accuracy to its sentiment. It speaks to the emerging phenomena of our crippling and even stifling fear of causing offence, or of being offended; the end result of which can only be that our freedom of speech becomes threatened.

Universities – institutions who arguably should be leading the way when it comes to debate and free speech – are increasingly becoming some of the places most intolerant to dissenting views. Higher education has lately seen a significant rise in policies such as safe spaces and no-platforming, intended in theory to limit the exposure of offensive speakers or groups and protect the student body. Recent examples have included human rights activist Maryam Namazie and feminist writer Germaine Greer, who were both prohibited from attending university events (though Greer later spoke at Cardiff University, as originally planned). While both women have done pioneering work in their fields, the student body was so resistant to causing offence that they shut down debate altogether.

It is unquestionably an excellent thing that our tolerance for racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination has lowered over time, though we can all agree that there is still some distance to go. No one should be subjected to prejudice or harassment in any form. And it is undoubtedly a good thing that in response to societal change in recent decades, our limits for what are deemed acceptable opinions and language have significantly evolved. This is not a call to return to the age in which discrimination was rife and widely accepted. Similarly, what I am not discussing here is outright hate speech; an entirely different matter to simple disagreement. For the sake of this article, allow me to clarify that I am referring to opinions that many people – particularly those amongst the typically liberal student body, myself included – may object to.

Being offended, having our views challenged and being forced to defend them is an important part of political debate – everywhere from the Houses of Parliament to university lecture halls. And more significantly than that: defending freedom of speech is vital to defending free thought. Our thoughts, and how we express them, cut to the centre of who we our – of our identities. 

While honourable in their intentions, policies like safe spaces and no-platforming – which are now in place across many UK universities – have come to stifle discussion rather than protect students from harm. Universities ought to be an example of healthy, active and open discourse, but if we allow ourselves to fear being offended above all else, rather than tackling head-on views that we find objectionable, we are denying students and speakers alike access to a range of opinions from across the political spectrum. 

There is another serious issue with the over-application of safe spaces. Put simply, not allowing people to express their opinions – however offensive – doesn’t make the individual, the group or their ideas go away. Exposing ourselves exclusively to views that we deem acceptable does nothing but reinforce the ever-increasing ‘echo chamber’ that already exists on social media and to some extent in real life. All views we hold are an implied rejection of the alternative. We should, therefore, be willing and able to defend our own in order to strengthen our existing ideas. Yet further, suppressing objectionable views may only strengthen them, by contributing to the ‘anti-establishment’ image that many figures such as Donald Trump have utilised and benefitted from.

How do we know what we think or why we think it? This is a question all of us should at least be able to address, if not definitively answer. At university in particular – cliché as it may be – what we think we believe, about the world and about ourselves, can be moulded, altered and questioned. We ought to be building on our sense of what is right and wrong. But this can’t happen if we don’t allow disagreement, and face up to challenges to what we think we understand about the world. 

What we must do is establish a balance between individuals’ right to freedom of speech and protecting others from harm. But we must also remember that, in the majority of cases, offence is not harmful – in fact, taking on opinions not in line with our own may fundamentally reinforce our morals and, better yet, begin to convince those with discriminatory views to adapt to a more accepting mindset. As LGBTQ+ campaigner Peter Tatchell said recently, ‘I don’t think people with offensive views should be given a free pass. They should be challenged’. Universities are the ideal place to call out offensive views and challenge them head on. Instead, hateful opinions are being suppressed and allowed to prevail.

It is worth looking back on history to provide some perspective for this very contemporary problem. Having recently celebrated the centenary of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK, we ought to consider whether figures such as the Pankhursts – rightfully named feminist heroes by many – would have been considered acceptable speakers in our twenty-first century universities. They pioneered rights for women, and stood up for an underrepresented group; but what would they have thought about multiculturalism, immigration and LGBTQ+ rights? What asking such questions tells us is that, without overlooking discrimination, we must always listen to what others have to say – and allow a conversation to follow.

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