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Free speech needs to be protected at universities

Free speech has certainly proved to be a contentious issue over recent years and this is especially true on university campuses.

report by Spiked earlier this year highlighted the astonishing levels of censorship existing across universities all over the country. The study showed that at most universities, ideas and free speech have been actively censored on campuses.

Here at Manchester, we have had our own issues with prohibition of free expression, with the Charlie Hebdo magazine being banned from the Refreshers’ Fair in 2015. In the current climate, a satirical, albeit controversial publication should be heralded as fundamental for the liberal cause against growing extremism over the world, not cited as offensive.

This week, Balliol College at the University of Oxford banned Christian Union representatives from having a stall at its freshers’ fair, due to concerns over the harm it could inflict on freshers. This was a clear violation of religious freedom and freedom of expression and did nothing to dispel the myth that students cannot tolerate diversity of thought.

Linda Bellos, a lifelong equal rights campaigner and key figure during the 1980’s feminist movement, was last week uninvited from speaking at Cambridge university because of her views on transgender politics. If an equal rights campaigner, who for decades has fought for the defence of minority rights cannot discuss potentially contentious views, then we really have reached a troubling level of censorship.

The list is endless and is a disappointing indictment of the current culture of ‘safe-spaces’, no-platforming and banning-frenzies that appear to have taken hold at some of the top universities in the world. After all, if you can’t discuss controversial issues at an institution designed to foster the free exchange of ideas, then where can you?

Freedom of speech is of course not an excuse to allow hate speech, but a regrettable conflation of hate speech and offence has occurred. Offence is subjective, what one may find offensive, others may find enlightening, perhaps even amusing. The sooner we treat students as individuals who are capable of forming their own opinions and not as belonging to certain groups who take offence as a collective, the better.

As students we should be objecting to such blatant denial of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. Whether we agree with a view or not, it is not down to the will of a small group to prevent a debate from being held. As a politics student I was in fact pleasantly surprised to see that a large portion of fellow students believe in uncensored free speech and the right to espouse even provocative views.

This suggests that the problem of censorship is not necessarily an issue of a monolithic ‘snowflake’ student bloc, rather, controlling and out of touch Students’ Unions.

It is not just Students’ Unions though that actively seek to undermine liberal values, it is also clear that universities themselves have engaged in active censorship of unpalatable ideas. It was here at Manchester that a Jewish Holocaust survivor had the title of her speech censored upon order by the Israeli embassy.

Facilitated by the University of Manchester, the speech entitled: ‘You’re doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to me’ was labelled “unduly provocative” and the speaker Marika Sherwood was forced to alter the title and tone of her address.

Problems of political correctness ultimately pose a threat to academia. Recently, Bath Spa University’s ethics committee prohibited James Caspian from writing a potentially significant thesis on transgender people who had undergone surgery and then regretted the decision, due to its potential to cause offence.

In circumstances like this it is not just free expression which is threatened, but also the welfare of the transgender community. No one knows as of yet whether this research could prove to be a vital step in preventing post-surgical suicide, but because of pressure within universities to avoid offence at all costs, it is unlikely any advances will be made.

Such a state of affairs in educational institutions is worrying. We come to university to debate, to be challenged and to expose ourselves to new ways of understanding society. We may even concede that our preconceptions about the world before we came to university were mistaken. The motivations behind safe spaces well may have been out of an admirable cause to protect students, however, when we ban, dis-invite or censor opinions out of fear of causing offence, what we are doing is not protecting student welfare, but sheltering adults from views that exist in wider society.

By preventing ideas from being discussed, we are not eradicating them from existence and from people’s consciousness. All we achieve is a stifling of their visible presence. Ideas cannot be removed through bans, no-platforms and the premise of being offended, they manifest whether being expressed or not.

We defeat ignorant ideas by challenging them and crucially, by winning the debate. I don’t recall the accusations of racism preventing Brexit, or the no-platforming of speakers sympathetic to Trump stopping him from becoming president.

As potentially the next generation of leaders in this country, we cannot ignore problems of intolerance and ill-liberalism forever. Why not confront them now and show wider society that students can be a positive and capable force for challenging ideas out in the open? It would certainly be a legacy that students of the 1960’s would be proud of.

We will win the war against intolerance through debate, not avoiding it.

Tags: Censorship, Debate, Free Speech, university

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