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I'm Ashamed to Be a Part of This Generation of Free Speech Deniers

07/01/2016 13:51 GMT | Updated 07/01/2017 10:12 GMT

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John Stuart Mill, one of the founding fathers of liberal democracy, devoted much of his writing to defending freedom.

He gave a particularly special place to free expression, placing it above other actions because, he argued, it would almost always result in the advancement of truth and progress.

He would therefore no doubt be turning in his grave at the sight of the clamping down on free speech at numerous universities around the country.

The university campus should be the place where students grow intellectually by coming into contact with alternative points of view and challenging ideas. Where dissenting ideas are expressed openly in the hope that some people might be persuaded to a new way of thinking.

Instead, students' unions and universities are running scared in the face of anything that might be unpalatable or unpopular.

In 2015 alone, there have been several incidences of a clamp down on free speech and free expression in the name of the prevention of offence.

At Oxford University, the recent campaign to have a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes removed because of his dubious involvement in colonial-era Zimbabwe conceals an elephantine irony, that the student leading the campaign - Ntokozo Qwabe - is himself a Rhodes scholar.

Indeed, the scholarship allows for 83 students each year, from the United States, Germany, Zimbabwe and a number of Commonwealth and southern African nations, to study at Oxford.

Yes, Rhodes was a creature of his age, and therefore having a conversation with him today would probably be quite unsettling; but as is clear from the very existence of the scholarship, he must have been at least slightly forward thinking.

Therefore, perhaps the plaque accompanying the statue could be altered so that, rather than blindly venerating him - if it does so currently - it could place him in a more accurate historical context.

At Cardiff University in November last year, prominent feminist writer Germaine Greer provoked a storm when she made controversial comments about transsexual people in the run-up to a lecture she was set to give on 'Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century'.

A group of students - rather than challenging her in open debate about her views - immediately petitioned for Greer to be banned from speaking, arguing that she had 'demonstrated misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether'.

The ultimate answer to that is; so what? Yes, Greer may have been wrong and insensitive in the views she had expressed, but if you feel that strongly about it then get up and challenge her, don't ban her because you think you hold a monopoly on truth.

Students in general seem to have forgotten - or perhaps didn't know in the first place - what liberalism is really about. It is about tolerance of differing viewpoints and alternative ways of life, even ones that you regard to be offensive or anathema to your view of the world.

That means inviting speakers to campuses with whom you disagree, in order to promote debate and discussion. Some people might get offended, but others might leave a lecture hall or a debate feeling that their viewpoint has changed.

In November 2014 at my university, Sussex, a petition was raised by a group of students to 'not invite representatives of the political party UKIP to attend or speak at events on campus'.

Thankfully, it never got to the point of going to a referendum, based on the legally dubious nature of its potential enforcement, but it says a lot about a certain type of modern university student that it was concocted in the first place.

They couldn't see the inherently dangerous nature of their suggestion; that this kind of thinking could be extended to anyone or any group with whom they disagreed.

The most important question that must be asked on this subject is, where will it stop? If Rhodes's statue is taken down, then surely others must go? Perhaps the numerous statues of Winston Churchill that exist around the country should be taken down?

After all, despite having a crucial role in saving millions of lives and the continent of Europe from the scourge of Nazism, Churchill had extremely anachronistic views on Indian independence and remained an ardent defender of the British Empire till the day he died.

Of course, given that the Second World War and Churchill's time as Prime Minister is still within living memory, the statues are probably safe, for now.

But fast-forward one hundred years, when the descendants of this current generation of free-speech deniers will be in positions of authority, will Churchill and others like him be safe then? I thoroughly doubt it.