How far should universities restrict freedom of speech?

Debate hears differing perspectives on whether students should have warnings or be sheltered from certain points of view

September 12, 2015
Source: iStock
"Laddish" and feminist comedians are among those who have fallen foul of student concerns about offensive material

Should students be given “trigger warnings” about discussions and texts that may offend them and “intellectual safe spaces” on campus?

That was the key question for panellists taking part in a debate at a London Thinks event held at Conway Hall on 10 September.

Pam Lowe, senior lecturer in sociology at Aston University, stressed that “everything is discussed in the classroom. Nothing is banned”. Yet since her research indicated that “students want to discuss difficult issues in class" but also want to be warned about them in advance, she tried to create “safe spaces” for them.

However, she said the university did not have the same responsibility for other events on campus.

In the Islamic Society, for example, “men and women often sit on different sides of the room even though there is no sign telling them to do so. Who am I to say they have to mix themselves up?”

Meanwhile, writer and activist Beatrix Campbell was distressed by the way that Rupert Read, lecturer in philosophy at the University of East Anglia (and a Green Party candidate at the last general election), had been fiercely attacked for his “wrong views” after writing “a philosophical rumination on transgender issues”.

Feminist campaigner Julia Bindel had similarly been “punished" by an NUS no-platform ban "repeated year in and year out” for her own views on the topic. Such censoriousness risked undermining “the feminist goal of challenging all questions of gender”, said Ms Campbell.

Discussion also touched on the banning of "laddish” comedian Dapper Laughs by Cardiff University and the cancellation of a gig by feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmiths, University of London, after concerns that her views on prostitution might breach the university’s “safe space policy” targeting “oppressive behaviour”.

It was left to Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked Online magazine, to take an extreme free-speech position (even extending to the right of people to publish paedophile fantasies).

“Once you’ve accepted a ‘no platform policy’,” he argued, “you’ve already conceded the principle”. Concerns about “Islamophobia” could easily lead to “the pathologisation of legitimate moral viewpoints”.

“We are here to talk about free speech,” Mr O’Neill challenged his fellow panellists. “Do you accept the right of a rugby club to issue a leaflet using the word ‘mingers’?” He was greeted by a cry from the floor: “I support free speech, but not you!”

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

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