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26th October 2016

Free speech crusaders harm debate

Making some trivial issues to be political under the banner of free speech churns the debating ground into dogma

Last week, I went on Fuse FM to discuss the recent decision by the SU to stop the sale of The Daily Star on campus—a decision that was justified by its objectification of women. The controversy surrounding the decision began in this paper, as it was deemed a violation of free speech. In discussing the Senate’s decision, I had only one real question: was it selling? It was not.

The SU could have stopped selling it for that reason alone. They had no reason to make the decision political. No private business has an obligation to do anything which does not add to its profits on claims of “free speech”. It would be similarly naïve to want to ban something that was making a profit on the belief that it was sending a political signal. The lack of sales of The Daily Star was a market signal that its presence was not of enough value to students on campus.

The dispute over this decision, however, is entirely around the politicisation of these matters—which is completely unnecessary, in my opinion. Not many things in life are political, but in recent years the politicisation of all activity is ramping up. This creates ideological tension and drives division.

Politics is a necessary evil, but too much politics leads to unnecessary conflict. I believe I was asked to discuss the issue due to my criticism the no-platforming of famous speakers last year, but even then it was a pragmatic criticism, and not one of free speech. As someone who still is vehemently opposed to no-platforming, the safe space policy, and political correctness more generally, I think I would do the cause some justice by disowning those who believe it to be a free speech issue.

Some philosophical background on the nature of free speech is useful in defending this decision. Free speech is a prima facie right (albeit one of the more important ones), meaning that there are certain rights that take precedent over it—namely, life and property. The right to free speech is not the ability to say whatever one likes, wherever one likes, but rather a civic obligation to criticise prevailing power structures, in the hope of affecting positive change. For this reason nobody objects to the fact that you cannot incite violence in your speech, or say insulting things to someone in their home despite their requests for you to stop.

True free speech concerns the public domain and related spaces. Since the Students’ Union is private property, and the Senate has been given a mandate (although it is one that I find questionable) to ensure its democratic functioning, they do have the right to decide what is, and is not, exhibited on their grounds. This is why free speech is not the appropriate grounds on which to contest these decisions.

The problems with political correctness, and the subsequent rise of safe spaces and no platforming, is that they stifle debate and insulate students from social issues. Students have historically been at the forefront of positive progress in society. When you try to block certain issues being heard, it does not aid in combatting them. Rather, these decisions lead to a false sense of security and satisfaction; it creates a culture in which students begin to believe that all educated people think like them—which is simply not the case.

A prime example of this is the Brexit debate on campuses across the country, where those who voted for Leave were classified as ignorant, since students were generally exposed only to other pro-Remain students and academics. This is bad practice for an academic environment, and harmful to students whose opinions should be constantly challenged as to make them more well-rounded critical thinkers. What it is not, however, is a violation of your right to free speech.

By turning the debate into something of political philosophy, those who campaign for free speech create a dogmatic environment. Instead of explaining the reasons why it is beneficial to allow for controversial speakers, their pitch that the Senate is some tyrannical, rights-violating entity is simply too extreme for the vast majority of students who likely do not feel strongly either way. This dogmatic attitude has turned many who would have otherwise been against no-platforming and safe spaces into supporters—out of sheer dislike for the style of ‘free speech’ arguments.

This is not to say that the safe-spacers themselves are presenting pragmatic arguments. Drawing ideological battlegrounds leads to apathy amongst the majority, and disgust from otherwise favourable students. In calling the removal of The Daily Star a violation of free speech, I suspect a few thoughts go through readers’ minds. Either that one finds the third-grade smut that is The Daily Star a valuable intellectual contribution, or that the free speech campaigners find no battle too small.

Not everything is political, and to cease the sale of something is not the equivalent of banning it. Picking battles and being pragmatic go a long way in gaining student support and shifting the Overton window of opportunity for change. This sort of humility would help the debate on both sides.

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