THE BLOG

Free Speech Is Being Defaced - We Must Fight

06/10/2015 08:31 | Updated 05 October 2016

Many students at the University of Warwick have good reason to rejoice recently - the decision to bar 'highly inflammatory' anti-sharia activist, Maryam Namazie, was overturned. As swathes of news outlets have reported over these past few days, Maryam Namazie was initially prevented from giving a talk to the Warwick University student society that I preside over - Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (WASH).

For those unfamiliar with the details, Warwick University's student union informed our society that they would be barring Maryam Namazie from talking to our society on account of her provocative views - with the further unsavoury claim that she "could incite hatred on campus".

These were obviously serious allegations. However, we were ardent that such claims were reprehensible, abstruse and would be opposed fervently by all members of WASH. As we claimed in our appeal, Maryam Namazie - a human rights campaigner - typically describes the true facts concerning her own experiences in relation to radical forms of Islam - particularly aiming her wrath towards those aggressive and ever-intolerant strands of the religion - Islamism - a fanaticism that most peaceful Muslims here in the west would also decry. 

Once Maryam was informed of the foolhardy decision taken by the staff at students union, both her and I took it upon ourselves to publically condemn their interdiction of free-speech. Our remonstration saw a deluge of organisations and dignitaries coming to our aid - denouncing WarwickSU for reviling Maryam, and for their regressive position on free-speech and for coddling their students. Both my twitter feed and my email inbox were besieged by thoughtful, passionate supporters.

The petition that I created on change.org urging WarwickSU to safeguard the principle of free-speech amassed thousands of signatures and an avalanche of endorsement. The renowned atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins even bemoaned on his twitter feed that: "To ban a speaker you happen to disagree with is a contemptible betrayal of everything a university stands for". Salman Rushdie also took to his Twitter account and insisted that universities must protect the "free play of ideas".

As a result of the large barrage of condemnation, the Students Union rightly retracted the initial barring and issued a "full apology" to Maryam Namazie - claiming that they had "failed badly" in the decision process. Both I and my student society warmly welcome the revocation as it sends a clear message to student unions all over the country about the importance of having free-speech in the university environment.

However, although I have been overwhelmed with positive, congratulatory messages, especially courtesy of my petition, I have seen inordinate amounts of revilement from many at the university over the revocation by WarwickSU.

"Why should the SU give a platform to such an offensive figure?" I have heard many incendiary students squall! Well, although I believe that university student unions have a duty to minimise any infractions in the student community, I also believe that student unions have a duty to ensure that free-speech is appropriated.

As I believe most people would agree; university environments should never be bastions of constricted narratives. I have always believed that censorship- especially in university settings - always thwarts its own purpose, for censorship creates, sooner or later, the kind of environment that is incapable of expending real discretion. It has the dire consequence of creating a very large faction of people who are unequipped with the tools of extolling the difference between, on the one hand, independence of thought and, on the other hand, subservience.

This is dangerous. It is dangerous because it has the worrying consequence of leaving people dithered, dismissive and even hostile to opposing narratives. Even though there have been a few incendiary objectors to WarwickSU's decision, the majority of students have heartily welcomed the retraction. Nevertheless, it is important to cast light on a more worrying fact: what we have seen these last few years is a growing trend of free-speech sanitisation in our university campuses.

Many universities around the UK, including Warwick, are distastefully circumventing free-speech in pursuit of inoffensive and tapered narratives. This should not be tolerated. I believe that it is paramount that all university students throughout the UK appeal to their university societies to ensure that their student societies also uphold and champion the principles that we, Maryam, and so many other campaigners have restlessly strived for.

It is paramount because the fight against free-speech effacement cannot be cast aside - for the murky shadows of free-speech suppression will always be dwelling in the cusps of our democracy.