The State of Free of Speech at University

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The ideological progress of society is built on the sharing of ideas, whether that be between universities, between academics, or between students. The ability to freely debate, challenge and have access to new and sometimes provocative concepts underpins the ability for academia, as a collective, to move forward. Without the ability to freely challenge an idea, that idea becomes reliant on dogma for its justification. “It is right because I say it is and you are not allowed to say it is wrong;” this sort of lazy and entitled view of the world seems to have crept into British Universities.

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Across the UK speakers have been ‘no-platformed’ from speaking in debates by students who would rather silence their critics than attempt to defend their arguments in an open and fair debate. Known now as ‘stepford students,’ this vocal minority have been defining the perception of universities by the public who now see us as a generation that is easily offended and sheltered from the real world. It is deeply unfair that the majority of students, who are more reasonable and open minded, have been defined by the actions of this quasi-tyrannical minority. It seems obvious that more ideas are always better than less and that an understanding dismissal of an argument is far more effective than a dogmatic denial.  

Focusing on the state of free speech at Bath; according to the traffic light style Spiked Freedom of Speech Rankings, the university was as ranked ‘Red’ and our SU was ranked as ‘Amber,’ mainly for its fairly draconian speaker form policy whereby all external speakers have to go through a vetting process by the university secretary.

Surely it is better to hold the speaker, and their views, to account through a thorough debate, insightful questioning, and a pertinent cross examination rather than just denying them a platform?

There have been occasions where students themselves have looked to shut down debates. For example PHD Student at Bath, Hilary Aked, rightly or wrongly, called for Bath Debating Society to cancel an Israel-Palestine Debate in 2016 adding a warning that “if the event still goes ahead I intend to issue a public statement of my opposition to this event and call for peaceful protests in opposition to it.” Her main issue with the event was that one of the speakers invited was a representative of the Israeli State whose actions and policies she disagrees with, yet rather than arguing her point, she closed down the whole conversation. Such an attempt to use the ‘protester’s veto’ and to call for a shut down the debate was disgraceful. Surely it is better to hold the speaker, and their views, to account through a thorough debate, insightful questioning, and a pertinent cross examination rather than just denying them a platform?

In February 2015 Bath Debating Society organised a debate with the motion “This house believes in the right to offend.” The proposition won comprehensively: For – 91, Against – 28, Abstaining – 19. This overwhelming confirmation shows that Bath Students en masse are actually up for dealing with contentious ideas and statements should weigh on the minds of SU and university policymakers when they consider free speech.

No platforming, or blacklisting, is perhaps the biggest challenge to free speech at universities. The arrogance of institutions and individuals that ‘they know best’ and that they are allowed to make a decision on what is right and wrong on behalf of everyone else is preposterous. “Why hear what the other side have to say when I know I am right?” Attempt to silence those we disagree with suffocates any chance of creating a mutual understanding or progressing on an issue. What would the Hegelian Dialect be with just a synthesis and no antithesis? It would lead to the same stale idea never improving, one that would rely on dogmatism rather than logical reason for justification. Such sheltered ideas that go unchallenged can never be good ones.

Now, the argument for genuine safe spaces at university where people who are suffering from PTSD can find solace is of course overwhelming. There are groups at university who do incredible work to create supportive environments for people facing a huge range of challenges. However the safe space should not be enveloping the whole university campus and those within it. If individuals find a certain topic troubling or upsetting they should not go to that lecture room where the specific debate is being held, they have no right to instead shut down the whole debate denying others the chance to improve their understanding of the issue.

There are other issues: who can pass judgment on what constitutes a breach of the safe space? Which institution or individual would draw the line and how could you hold them to account? Who defines what is ‘offensive’? So yes to safe spaces within university, but the idea that the whole university should be place where nothing potentially offensive can be said must be resisted.

In society, limits are already placed on absolute free speech; for example the state bans hate-speech and comments that incite violence to minority group. This balance is welcome however it should be the role of the sovereign state, and not a university Student’s Union to decide what this balance should be. The right balance of free speech should be defined by the expertise of our elected lawmakers and not be decided by amateur and often under-accountable student politicians. Furthermore, when the Government introduces draconian policies that attempt to curb free speech such as the Prevent Strategy, we should challenge that through lobbying our elected MPs.

So what should the SU and university do? The continuation of ‘speaker forms’ is understandable as the university should know who is speaking on campus, however the threat of a veto that overhangs this exercise should be reversed, so long as the speaker is not a criminal or is not committing hate speech as defined by the state then the university should not arbitrarily smother discussions, the potential for controversy or offense to be caused is not a sufficient warrant for them to intervene. In fairness to the SU and the university, they have never rejected a speaker and it is more an exercise in bureaucracy to cover insurance and liability issues, however it should be made explicit in the speaker form Policy Paper that they will never choose to reject a speaker unless obliged to by the law.

As students, it is tiring to be patronised and mollycoddled by minority groups who feel they know better than us. As we saw in the ‘right to offend debate’ there is an appetite amongst students at Bath to challenge controversial ideas rather than deny their existence; so long as this silent majority is there to provide critical mass, free speech at Bath University may remain as it should be; controversial, open and tolerant.

 

photo credit: Newtown graffiti

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John Heath is bathimpact's cultural correspondent. He is an Economics and Politics student and also writes about national British politics.

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