Should there be a right to offend on campus?

Free speech campaigners argue that campuses should not be entirely safe

February 17, 2016
Source: iStock
Threats to campus freedom deserve a robust response, some speakers argued

“No platforming”, hate speech, bigotry and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel have all come under searching scrutiny at a conference organised by Spiked online magazine.

Opening the first session at the event, held in central London’s Conway Hall on 17 February, deputy editor Tom Slater pointed to “an explosion of censorship on campus”, with “the bar [for offence] getting lower and lower”, so that “even donning a sombrero can get you into trouble. Now, being intellectually and emotionally comfortable is paramount [for students].”

The controversy about protesters trying to prevent Germaine Greer speaking at Cardiff University, claimed freelance writer Abi Wilkinson, was “an enormous storm in a teacup”. In reality, attempts to “no-platform” controversial speakers tended to “start up debate rather than shutting it down – because of the backlash, media reaction and comments on Twitter. Students’ union officers can’t stop students hearing certain views.”

For Spiked staff writer Ella Whelan, “safe spaces stifle debate by their very nature…Campuses are not private members’ clubs and shouldn’t be – they are part of public life.” There was little danger that allowing offensive views on campus would “turn the entire student body to the BNP [British National Party]”.

“If you feel safe on campus,” Ms Whelan suggested to students, “you’re doing something wrong.” The only thing that safe spaces deserved was “a two-finger salute”.

Barnaby Raine, a student at the University of Oxford who serves on the executive council of the National Union of Students, spoke in favour of BDS and referred to Israel’s “deliberate perpetuation of injustice along ethnic lines”, which inevitably had an impact on the academic freedom of Palestinians.

Sai Englert, lecturer in development studies at Soas, University of London, also said that BDS was justified on the grounds that he cared more about influencing “structures and political processes” than the free circulation of ideas, and that Palestinian civil society had called for a boycott.

Yet Joanna Williams, education editor at Spiked (who also teaches at the University of Kent), described the BDS movement as a “censorious…campaign to promote freedom by calling for censorship” that made “judgements, based on nationality or viewpoint, on who can speak”.

It was “bigoted” in its focus on the sins of a single country and also “trivialise[d] research in the humanities, which were seen as taken over by political campaigning”. Academics were setting a terrible example to their students in wanting to “shut down and censor rather than engage”.

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