We Must Protect Freedom of Speech, Student Safety is Not at Risk

23/02/2016 12:25 GMT | Updated 22/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Richard Brookes, the Vice President for Union Development at the National Union of Students (NUS), wrote in an article on the 18th January for the Huffington Post that yes we must protect freedom of speech, but this should not be 'at the cost of student safety'.

The view that Brookes takes, like many other student 'representatives' now, is one of the student body - and minorities in particular - as a mass of helpless and impressionable infants. It is as a patronizing and unfair view.

Firstly, the Spiked 'University Free Speech Rankings' come under attack. Brookes notes universities are ranked down for having bullying, harassment, and equal opportunity policies. He says calling this laughable 'is an understatement'. Yet he mischaracterizes the rankings. Having these sorts of policies does not immediately rank a university down in terms of free speech. Rather, policies are assessed in terms of their individual content. A bullying policy, for example, may be used to restrict free debate on the grounds that criticizing say, a well-known campus feminist, is considered 'bullying'. It is the specific content of these policies when they actively restrict free speech that results in a university being marked down, not the existence of the policies themselves.

Brookes also talks about no-platforming policies for racists and fascists that, according to him, do not mean 'wrapping students in cotton wool'. Yet that is exactly what it means. It means telling students that they are too fragile to handle these 'dangerous' ideas. They are told if they are exposed to people espousing ideas and beliefs that may be considered distasteful, immoral, even abhorrent or reprehensible, then they will be irreversibly traumatized by the words they hear. Yet university is not and should not be a safe space. Reality is not a safe space.

I should also say at this point that it is important not to conflate defence of somebody's free speech with defence of what they're saying. It often goes that if I defend a transophobic person's right to speak, I therefore defend transphobia. This is blatantly ridiculous.

Brookes goes on to make the claim that 'student unions house some of the most interesting and diverse debates'. I don't doubt that unions hold interesting debates; I watch them all the time at my own. Yet what about the endless bans on speakers including Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Katie Hopkins? Do you know what makes debates considerably more interesting? A diverse range of opinions - including those that are controversial - being given a platform so that the most abhorrent ideas can be publically torn to shreds.

'It would be wonderful if the principles of freedom of speech meant everyone had equal right to speak. But is the most powerful, those who are able to shout loudest, who are heard above the rest.'
Richard Brooks appears to have a very warped idea of what we're trying to achieve. We do want equal debate, and that is exactly what we're not getting at the moment. Free speech campaigns and organizations wouldn't be emerging and proliferating otherwise. We're not saying you need to put a hate speaker in a room alone with a group of students. But give them a platform so that they can be debated. Students will make up their minds who is right, trust me. Students do not deserve to be patronized and infantilized. Yet this is exactly what Brookes does when he speak about the 'detriment of the marginalized'. Here he plays the liberator and protector. He speaks for the vulnerable and the marginalized. Even if there were swathes of vulnerable and marginalized students across the country, they can speak for themselves. He is the one doing them a disservice when he says 'Their student's union is the one place they feel safe'. He then follows this with 'students live in the real world'. The irony here is almost fatal. Yes, they do live in the real world, where there are real outspoken people and real controversial ideas.

When Brookes claims that 'Nobody is arguing universities and student's unions should be devoid of debate' he is somehow missing that this is the exact direction we're going in. Student unions are starting to resemble Soviet police states. He says

'It is laughable to suggest that freedom of expression has no limits and that line is drawn at those who do not believe in freedom of speech at all'
Firstly I'm not sure why this is laughable. Secondly, it seems, that it is Richard Brookes who does not believe in freedom of speech at all. His method of dealing with those who do not like free speech is to make sure they don't have it themselves. This is preposterous.

Brookes ends his article reminding the reader that 'This isn't about 'banning people we don't like, it's about keeping fascists off campus'. This sounds an awful lot like it's about banning people you don't like. Overall, his view is discouraging. The nonsense of safe spaces is becoming exhausting. Students are more than capable of listening to a fascist and defeating their arguments publically. Give students more credit, you're underrating them.