As Theresa May’s controversial counter-terrorism and security bill fast-tracks its way through Parliament, it appears we can now draw a distinct line under the government’s short-lived love affair with freedom of speech.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, David Cameron spoke passionately and at great length about the threat this attack posed to “our freedom of expression and our way of life”. And yet, in an ironic twist this bill contains (among many alarming and possibly illegal measures) an imposition on universities to ban extremist speakers on campus and root out would-be radicals through staff surveillance. This will only serve to further marginalize free debate in places where it is supposed to be sacrosanct.
The response from students and academics to this latest instalment in ‘anti-extremism’ legislation makes clear that its injunctions are about as welcome on campus as an outbreak of smallpox or Nick Clegg. Student groups across the country have been submitting emergency motions to their unions recently, urging them to take a stand against the bill.
However, there exists a bitter irony in this sudden spirited and widespread campaign for the rights of students and academics to say the unsayable and think the unthinkable. Ultimately these words ring hollow. When universities take arms against the threat to free speech from without, this only obscures the defeat of free speech that has been perpetrated from within.
You see, this flurry in defence of free expression and thought for students has rather conveniently coincided with the publication of the first ever Free Speech University Rankings by the online magazine Spiked, a survey that found 80% of universities, as a result of their official policies and actions, had either restricted or actively censored free speech and expression on campus beyond the requirements of the law.
The scale of this problem is deceptively large, and it appears that we students are the ones leading the way. 37% of student unions still clutch to ‘No Platform’ policies, which officially ban all far-right and extremist speakers from campus. But now, Safe Space polices are becoming an increasingly popular alternative in students’ union politics, with twenty-two unions having officially adopted them. They look harmless enough on paper; Bristol’s says “we have the responsibility to create a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment”. While they sound commendable, they are, in fact, far worse than the implications of ‘No Platform’ policies: a blank cheque to ban anything students’ unions deem too offensive, or too hot to handle under the vague, inflammatory terms of “unsafe or unwelcoming conditions”.
Student unions, it would seem, are only too happy to arbitrate what ideas we can and cannot be exposed to, leading to a growing sense of crisis around debate in British universities. In recent months, Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; UCL dissolved the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying “equality is a false God”; the University of Derby has officially banned UKIP from its campuses in the lead up to the General Election and Dundee expelled the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from their fresher’s fair last year. The Sun is not sold on dozens of campuses because of Page 3, and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines has also been banned by many student unions.
Explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on political affiliations, religious sentiments, specific ideologies, books, opinions, words or speakers on the grounds of their potential to offend are all deeply concerning to me, and I hope, you as well. We are rapidly descending into a generation that believes its self-esteem is more important than everyone else’s liberty.
Freedom of speech is not an elastic term; it means tolerating speech you don’t like. Instead of shying away from real world issues like sexism, racism and homophobia we should be confronting them and contesting ideas on campus. I am offended when it is assumed that students are too fragile to even take part in reasoned debate nowadays – the true solution to bad speech is more speech, not regulated speech. How can we as young adults be expected to develop as truly autonomous beings if the paternalistic edifice championed by the NUS that we need protection from “harm from ideas” is something we are at ease with? Safety is now being equated with intellectual comfort, which is something no institute of learning should promote.
“Real freedom of expression can hurt. That’s the price we pay,” says professor Bill Durodié, an expert in the causes and perceptions of security risk, at the University of Bath. “Is fostering empathy with other people’s feelings valuable? One hundred percent yes. Should it direct everything you do? No.”
Everybody should have a platform. Words should be defeated by words and ideas should be defeated by ideas. Banning the bigots and the misogynists is not the end of the argument; it is by its nature an ongoing debate as long as serious social and cultural questions are left unanswered. Closing one’s eyes and ears to discussion instead of engaging issues with your own voice only serves to make the target of your censorship a martyr for free speech. We cannot allow politics and debate even at the student and informal level to be ruled by hurt feelings. It should be ruled by rationality, evidence, proper analysis, logic, and appropriate justification for every claim that follows the above.
After more than a decade of encroachments on our civil liberties, we’ve begun to see through the government-sponsored precept that safety trumps freedom, yet universities remain well ahead of the curve in implementing that logic. We students already ban far more groups than the government, and now students’ unions are seeking to protect us not just from the most pernicious and violent views in society, but also from the realm of ideas itself. It is clear that safety on campus need not concern Theresa May after all, we students are doing a fine job of censoring ourselves as it is.