Defend free speech on campus: education is not meant to be comfortable

makes the case against universities that no-platform, ban The Sun, and de-ratify controversial societies, arguing that universal freedom of speech is non-negotiable

In November of last year, the student union at the City University of London voted to ban the Sun, Express and Daily Mail from its campus. The motion was entitled ‘Opposing Facism [sic] & Social Divisiveness in the UK Media’. The ban was based on a number of reasons, one being that the papers were ‘mirroring Nazi propaganda and undermining the rule of law in the UK’. The motion can be extended to other media organisations in the future, with the three ‘merely used as high profile examples’. Exactly how the ban will be enforced remains unclear. The actions of the union appear to be symbolic, although staff at City are known to be deeply embarrassed by the ordeal, especially given that the university has one of the most highly regarded journalism departments in the country.

This is the latest farce in a string of events across British campuses where civil liberties have been suppressed. In 2015, a campaign initiated by a member of Cardiff University’s Student Union sought to prevent feminist author Germaine Greer from giving a lecture at the university, claiming that her views on transgender people were ‘problematic’, despite her lecture not even being on transgender issues. At the start of this academic year, a first year student at the University of Bristol was lambasted with accusations of being a rape apologist with a ‘tiny brain’ after he suggested in a written article that having five consent talks in a single week was not the most effective way of combating rape culture, immediately removing any impetus for further debate. The University of Strathclyde banned a pro-life society last month because it violated the ‘safe space’ of ‘those with uteruses’ on campus.

Last year, our own university infamously cancelled its plans for International Men’s Day; a day apparently fraught with ‘misogynistic rhetoric’. The result was that male students around the country were told that to have a single day that highlights the issues that disproportionately affect men ‘merely amplifies existing, structurally imposed, inequalities’. An investigation by Nouse found that 64% of York students either disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that YUSU ‘upholds free speech on campus very well’, following the university having been downgraded from ‘Green’ to ‘Amber’ in Spiked’s University Free Speech Rankings.

Such acts not only contradict the very ideals that liberalism claims to uphold, but are largely ineffective in tackling the growing threats of racism, xenophobia and bigotry. They prove that students can’t handle free speech. Rights to expression appear to extend only to those who hold the ‘correct’ opinion, laughably encompassing students in a safe space bubble, where the thoughts and opinions of millions of people are rejected. It begs the question as to why anyone would even entertain the idea of attending a university if, at the slightest chance of being offended and ‘oppressed’ (a term banded about far too often by British students, the vast majority of whom belong to some of the most advantaged demographics in the entire world), they would look to shut down debate. How on earth the student union at City feels that it is within its jurisdiction to determine what newspapers its students can and cannot be allowed to read is beyond the rationale of any sensible individual. Once the guardians of the free exchange of ideas, universities are being mutated into fortresses of censorship, moulded by the delicate sensibilities of over protected millennials.

An easy get out clause for the hard-line liberals that have conquered our student unions is to claim that the very act of speaking out in opposition to abortion, for example, such as the pro-life society in Strathclyde did, somehow contributes to the oppression of those whose opinions they differ with. This is preposterous. They are not oppressing anyone, merely maintaining a commonly held stance on an issue that is begging for discussion. The expression of their views does in no way prevent the pro-choice lobby from expressing theirs. Such ridiculous actions by the students at Strathclyde are violations of the very rights that the left claims to be fighting for. By removing someone’s ability to express their beliefs and concerns, you refute the freedom of speech as a fundamental right. Rights shouldn’t be things that one should have to qualify for. Rights are self-evident and unassailable, and for a single individual to have them means that everyone should have them, regardless of what opinion they wish to express with that right.

Hate groups such as the English Defense League leech off ‘political correctness gone mad’. We are moving towards a world of greater equality and diversity, and this is for the best. Everyone benefits when inequalities in income and gender, for example, are diminished. Yet the way to achieve this is not by suppressing those that do not share the same vision, it is by challenging their defamatory claims. If the left feels that an individual or a group is promoting violence and discrimination, it must overcome them through logical discourse. Removing their ability to spout their nonsense is merely a concession that our own arguments are not up to standard.

One may highlight the fact that the freedom of speech and opinion does not necessarily equate to the right to a platform. This is true, and in the year in which the ludicrously deranged Donald Trump ranted his way to the White House, the argument that we should continue to allow those who have the ability to inspire hate and division to convey their ideas may leave a bitter taste on the tongue. However, the success of Trump and his cohort of anti-establishment millionaires can be attributed to the ineffectiveness of the Democratic campaign, the composition of the outdated Electoral College, and the deeply entrenched culture of racism and sexism in American society – but certainly not to his right to a platform. Sure, there may be no inalienable right, but it is our moral duty to ensure that the far right is allowed to be heard. Moreover, it is our duty to provide a sound enough argument that persuades people not to fall for the xenophobia, bigotry and antipathies of modern populism. Besides, you may not have the right to a platform, but neither do you have the right to never be offended.

Providing a platform for what we may deem as traditional, even offensive, viewpoints can even work to the advantage of those championing the progressive stance. Why would you shut down a racist when you can engage with them in public and reveal them for what they truly are; psychotic morons. Indeed, the arguments put forth by a number of liberals are often placed in direct opposition to more conservative viewpoints. Think of the debate leading up to the legalisation of same sex marriage in 2013. By allowing those who opposed the Marriage Act to engage in the discussion, those in favour of the new bill were better able to put forth their argument by contrasting it to some of the ludicrous viewpoints emanating from the anti-gay lobby. Recall the Right Reverend Mark Davies, a high ranking Catholic priest, who in his 2012 Christmas Mass likened the push for gay marriage to the actions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Staunch bastions of social conservatism, such as Davies, propel moderates towards progressivism as soon as the outrageous nature of their claims become apparent. Students should expose themselves to the nonsense that the paranoid right expels so to improve their understanding of what exactly it is that they are trying to overcome.

Education is not meant to be comfortable, nor is life. Outside of campus, there are people who hold irrational prejudices against a number of demographics. Those people are more prevalent than we might like to think. Banning newspapers that print inflammatory articles doesn’t make them, or their ideologies, disappear. Nor does it discourage free thinkers from having such prejudices. Shutting down nay-sayers achieves nothing more than dis-inviting them from the society that we are trying to create, and reinforces their hateful rhetoric.

Leave a comment