‘Free speech, I fear, is no longer held in high esteem’

Free speech should not be limited on university campuses and students should engage more with opposing views to their own, writes University of Sussex student Edward Wilson 

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Edward Wilson

January 15 2018
Free speech for students


We’re told that free speech should not be limited, most of all not on a university campus. Even the current government recognises that speech should be free and unfettered, represented best by the push by former universities minister Jo Johnson. It is astonishing to learn that once the surface of our ever-so-liberal universities is scratched, there is not always tolerance and understanding; sometimes we see a rejection of diversity.

Surely the aphorism that: “I may not agree with your opinion but will defend to the death your right to express it” is as true today as it’s ever been? It astounds me that some universities today appear to have turned their back on this.

Yes, really. Here at my university, the University of Sussex, we have the slogan: “Let’s be critical, thoughtful, creative and brave to create a better society than the one we have today”, and yet they have been in the middle of a free speech debacle. How can this be? Is it not the role of a university to encourage the free exchange of ideas, to challenge, to nurture and to embrace diversity?

Last year, Liberate the Debate, the free speech society at the University of Sussex, invited Ukip politician Bill Etheridge to address them. Ironically, his topics were libertarianism and free speech. The Students’ Union at Sussex reacted by attempting to burden Mr Etheridge with restrictions, asking to vet his speech before it could be delivered. The union claimed that the event would be “medium to high risk” and requested that the society source “security”.* 

Mr Etheridge is neither extreme nor (and I apologise to Mr Etheridge now for saying this) of significant importance in the greater scheme of things, but the issues concerned are. For this first event to be hijacked on the grounds of security begs the question of how student culture has regressed to a state that means individuals can no longer talk about the topics that they specialise in.

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What threat does the Students’ Union fear by allowing students a platform to embrace ideas, challenge their own perspectives and affirm what they believe to be right and wrong? A university without debate makes as much sense as a dinner party without food.

To paint only Sussex with the brush of intolerance would be unfair. It is far from being the only university where events have been hijacked. Not long ago, for example, Peter Hitchens had to speak in the street after the University of Liverpool Students’ Union reacted in a similar fashion to its Sussex counterpart.  

My worry is that although when Students’ Unions first began to ban speakers there was national outrage, it will become such a regular occurrence that hardly an eyebrow will be raised. When speakers are being restricted, regardless of their political orientation, it jeopardises the integrity of the university.

It’s not just the Students’ Unions either. When a university labels political thought that it disagrees with as something to be drowned out, as it could be argued that the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research did early in 2017 when it held a seminar on “dealing with right-wing attitudes and politics in the classroom”, one has to question the intellectual integrity of the institution. 

Surely it’s better to express your own view and your own argument rather than abiding by what is deemed morally right or wrong on campus? Academic integrity is important, and when views are censored and learning doesn’t take place, this is wrong. From my first-hand experience on campus, I’ve felt like I’ve had to write in a particular manner to achieve my desired grades. Is it right that a student should feel like they are obliged to pander to a lecturer’s politics to achieve a passing grade?

It could be that I’m wrong, it could be that there is no such prejudice, it could be that I’ll be marked fairly regardless of my argument but there’s clearly something wrong with the university culture when some students are afraid to express themselves. If we’re wrong, let us speak and then confound our arguments with reasoned debate.

Student culture has changed over the years; in my father’s time, ideas flourished despite the odd free speech conflict, individuals were able to explore radical ideas and debate one another with facts, reason and, most importantly, tolerance of each other’s views.

I believe that this has changed; students no longer interact with opposing views, and the progress of social media has meant that, regardless of political orientation, students remain in a self-made echo chamber, afraid to listen to, let alone understand, their opponent’s arguments. Whereas in the past the most powerful tool was the word, it appears that now physical violence is the go-to method to win debate.

This goes back to Etheridge. The SU conditions were put in place for “his security”, but why should a speaker be worried about getting attacked on campus? Surely, the emphasis should be put on the students to show both respect and tolerance for opposing views?

The crux of British society was formed on the core ideas of liberalism accepted by what we call the Left and Right today. Now, rather than embracing these ideals, authoritarian methods are becoming preferred. Stereotyping rather than debate; reason and rationality cast away; free speech, I fear, is no longer held in such high esteem.

Freedom of expression is fundamental, and is key to preventing the political extremes of left or right from taking our individual rights. Once one goes, the others follow suit.

Edward Wilson is a politics and international relations student at the University of Sussex.

*A spokesperson from the University of Sussex responded to this saying that it was not accurate to say that the society needed to buy in security. This is the relevant extract from the email sent to the student event organisers: 

“Due to some previous comments of the speaker being considered quite controversial, for the speaker’s safety, more than anything, we will have to inform University of Sussex security and we will expect a presence at the event. Please note that if this results in any cost, funds will need to secured to cover that cost. If this is the case, please come and speak to me and we can discuss the options.”

Furthermore, the university’s vice-chancellor Adam Tickell disagreed that there had been any reduction of free speech at the university, adding that Sussex had hosted Ukip politicians and would “continue to welcome anybody who is prepared to come and speak, within the law”.

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