Safe Spaces Don’t Threaten Freedom of Speech

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Denying a voice to bigots isn’t censorship; safe spaces enrich rather than shrink the discourse on campus.

The treasured writer Salman Rushdie, infamously censored for writing a work of literature, once said that without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist at all – and he would know. In order to have meaningful freedom of speech, all views, ideas and volitions must have the right to exist, no matter how disagreeable or estranged from our own they are. It is a real fear that once you ban one thing, there is a slippery slope, and suddenly all censorship becomes permissible.

So people have agreed that it’s best just to permit everything, no matter how awful. Liberal societies are expected to protect our rights to hold our personal views and bang our drums. But it’s worth remembering that not all voices are created equal, and sometimes the loudest have to be turned down so minorities can speak.

It seems fundamentally contradictory to support freedom of speech and equality on campus while demeaning safe spaces created explicitly to serve the needs of minority communities. No-one ever promised those spaces were going to be a liberal’s lunch. The idea that people who depend on these spaces are at some lesser stage of maturity radically misunderstands what safe spaces are for, namely protection. Scaremongering about censorship reveals how privileged students aren’t understanding what matters to others who have grown up under different circumstances, which is ironic when it’s the defenders of safe spaces who are accused of myopia.

A few years ago I set up a safe space for people with mental health conditions so that they could have tea and talk freely with like-minded people about their experiences, without fear of stigma. The idea that this is suppressing free speech is patently absurd. The opinion that students who use such spaces are afraid of new ideas is wrong. They are simply tired of the prejudicial attitudes embedded in society. Creating spaces where people can find respite from bigotry is not at all similar to clamping down on freedom of speech. Offenders are still at liberty to go and voice their opinion some place else. The idea that the presence of safe spaces detracts from the value of discourse on campus is absurd. If anything, the existence of spaces where suppressed voices are free to talk ultimately enriches, widens and galvanises the debate.

The crucial point is that there is an important difference between boycotting speakers and suppression. It amazes me that people can’t see the distinction between the act of boycotting Katie Hopkins and genuine repression. It’s offensive to the plight of any political prisoner to suggest the two acts are in any way tantamount.

The trend towards safe spaces on campus is not going to create bubbles where students will never have to encounter an alternative world-view, it will ultimately force us all to realize that free speech is complex and we must maximise the opportunity to speak for everyone. And doing that means allowing safe spaces, not censoring them.

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