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Is Student Speech Stifled?

21/03/2017 16:20
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Originally published in The Hullfire student newspaper.

The ability to speak our mind is a much cherished freedom of the society in which we live, but one that I believe recent events at Lincoln University Union have suggested is sadly under threat. The recent brief suspension of Lincoln's Conservative Society simply for sharing an image from a study that suggested Lincoln University ranked as "very intolerant" on freedom of speech, appears to be illustrative of an endemic problem throughout many campuses.

Another example of the issue can be seen in an earlier case involving Israel's deputy ambassador, Alon Roth-Snir, being invited to speak to politics student at Essex University. Rather than a passionate debate over the current issues between Israel and Palestine, which the organiser Professor Thomas Scotto, had hoped for, a crowd of students attempted to storm the building and heckled the speaker. The Guardian reported at the time, that "university security said they could no longer guarantee the speaker's safety." It's clear from the president at the time, Nathan Bolton, and his support of the calls from the university's "Palestine Solidarity Group and the Socialist Worker Student Society" to ban the speaker, that there was a particular agenda amongst the governing student body. The question must be asked, is that fair?

The University of Strathclyde Students' Association also recently banned a campus pro-life group from setting up a society as it was felt this would violate 'safe spaces'. The USSA's motion argued that "allowing an anti-choice group to form would be a barrier to freedom, equality and body autonomy for those with uteruses on campus". One pro-life student said it was "saddening that a university that claims to be so liberal and put so much value on enlightenment and free thought is happy to censor things which should be challenged and debated." This ban naively makes the assumption that there is one universal view on abortion and is another clear infringement on free speech. Both events at the universities of Strathclyde and Essex were attempts to try to shut out opinions that people disagreed with - and not take them head on.

We must allow open debate and we must be open to the opposition as should have been allowed in all the cases above. Any attempt to stifle debate breeds discontent and ultimately anger, it does not provide the solution to defeating the ideas with which you may disagree. Efforts made to isolate opposing views and prevent them from being expressed will not help you to inform and understand people who hold to those ideas. If you do not inform yourself on an idea you disagree with by directly debating with an individual who holds to that idea then you are actually just neglecting the issue. As the BBC's Andrew Neil recently said on Daily Politics, "What's the point of a university if you don't allow a variety of views to be expressed?"

Much of the reason for why we have reached the point that we have today is because of a lack of openness within society at large. Why is it that the polls failed to predict the Tories winning a majority in 2015? Why is it that people failed to see Brexit happening? Not because pollsters are stupid, but because many who voted for those two eventualities were not honest in their feelings as they feared being open in doing so. This is because a climate of illiberalism has been allowed to be created on our campuses and within wider society. Facts now seem to be swept under the carpet if we don't like them. The freedom to express ourselves seems to no longer be allowed unless it fits within a certain narrative. We must look at ourselves, our actions and our words, before we start to pass judgment.

However it is important to remember that a nuanced and considered approach to the issue of free speech is needed; a complete 'laisse-fair' attitude to freedom of speech would be insensitive and as individuals we have every right to obstruct views that intend to destroy society. The policy of 'No-platforming' operated by some universities, in regards to extremists and fascists is one which ultimately has good intentions. It is designed to protect people in a safe place, and university should be just that; a place of both free speech and safety. However, this privilege has the potential to be abused and as is clear in some instances the line becomes blurred when we start to regard pro-life activists as equal to fascists and racists. If we genuinely believe in freedom we need to be much more encompassing and conciliatory in our approach and allow difference of opinion and debate to thrive.

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