Freedom of speech trumps safety on campus

Why are today’s students so preoccupied with protecting themselves from potentially ‘harmful’ ideas, asks Tom Slater

January 29, 2015

Source: Nate Kitch

As Theresa May’s counter-terrorism and security bill makes its way through Parliament, we can now draw a 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 about the threat that the attack posed to “our freedom, our freedom of expression, our way of life”. And yet the bill’s imposition on universities of a duty to ban extremist speakers and root out would-be radicals will only further erode free debate in places where it is supposed to be sacrosanct.

Over the past 12 years, we’ve watched as counter-terror measures have encroached ever further on freedom of debate on campus. Now the beefed-up regulations have provoked a negative response like never before. For instance, Richard Black, pro director of research and enterprise at Soas, University of London, declared in a blog post that “hearing and addressing all perspectives is of critical importance. And the moment when a law tells us we cannot do that is censorship, plain and simple.”

But the recent flurry of support for the rights of students and academics to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable rings 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.

As the memorial edition of Charlie Hebdo was going on sale, a student at the University of Bristol cheekily asked a students’ union officer on Twitter whether it would be allowed for the magazine to be sold in Bristol’s students’ union building, given the union’s “Safe Space” policy. “No” was the unequivocal answer.

In recent months, I’ve become all too familiar with Safe Space policies. I coordinate the Free Speech University Rankings, the UK’s first university rankings for free speech, which the online magazine Spiked is launching next week. Safe Space policies are the latest thing in students’ union politics, and 22 unions now have them on their books. They look inoffensive enough on paper. Bristol’s says “we have the responsibility to create a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment”. But while they may appear to be the softer successor to the now discredited No Platform – the long-standing National Union of Students policy that refuses a platform to far-Right and extremist speakers – they are, in fact, far worse: a blank cheque to ban anything students’ unions deem too offensive, or too hot to handle.

While No Platform remains deeply patronising, the suggestion of Safe Space policies is that students need to be shielded from the most extreme views in society and this takes things a step further. The policies have been used to ban everyone from UK Independence Party candidates to “sexist” comedian Dapper Laughs. No Platform, for all its flaws, was at the very least outward looking. It was a foolhardy attempt by students to change the world. Safe Space, by contrast, seeks to seal students off from it entirely.

The fact that safety has become the major preoccupation of today’s students is bizarre. The lowering of the legal age of majority in 1970, from 21 to 18, and the consequent lapsing of universities’ responsibilities in loco parentis, was an important moment. Campuses were established as adult spaces, in which students must be free to contest ideas and develop as autonomous beings. Now students’ unions are reconstructing the old, paternalistic edifice – not only to protect their members from physical harm, but also from “harm” from ideas. Safety has been downgraded to mean intellectual comfort – something no institute of learning should promote.

But the blame doesn’t only lie with students’ unions. Universities have allowed this to happen. Indeed, they’ve encouraged it by justifying their own acts of censorship under their duty-of-care obligations. The University of East London recently banned an Islamic Society event featuring a homophobic Muslim cleric because it “offends the core values, codes and morals of our institution”. Now universities are in danger of being consumed by the Safe Space ethos, with students requesting “trigger warnings” on potentially offensive course materials, and lecturers being advised to allow students to abstain from modules that deal with difficult topics.

When May was introducing the counter-terrorism and security bill last November, she insisted that the proposals were necessary to “keep us safe at a time of very significant danger”. After more than a decade of encroachments on our civil liberties, we’ve begun to see through the logic that safety trumps freedom. Yet universities remain well ahead of the curve in implementing that logic. No Platform already bans more groups than the government. Now students’ unions are seeking to protect students not just from the most pernicious and violent views in society, but also from the realm of ideas itself. It’s time that students and academics stood up and declared that the university should never be a safe space.

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