Last week Julie Bindle, the feminist and journalist, was due to speak at our Student Union - except - at the last minute the student management team stepped in and banned her on our behalf.
Bindle became well known for an infamous article published in the Guardian in 1994, in which she argued that, people "unhappy with the constraints of [their] gender, [should] challenge them" rather than consider, "irreversible surgery on healthy bodies." I disagree with the sentiment and I vehemently disagree with the sneering, mocking tone in which she delivered it. As did the NUS, who enshrined the words "Julie Bindle is vile" in their manifesto.
Our Union and the NUS are democratic institutions that claim to represent of every single one of us. Many regard free speech as a necessary precondition for democratic legitimacy to even exist, so it troubles me that both institutions seem to have forgotten what the team means.
As it happens, Bindle was due to speak about a new book, Straight Expectations, Feminism generally and nothing related to her previous comments on transgender people. But regardless, she should not have been silenced, even if many disagree or are even offended by the content of her speech. Liberalism works because bad ideas are challenged and valuable ideas that might be very unpopular can be heard. Preemptive censorship like this in universities is particularly concerning. It's not just a betrayal of a commitment to free speech, but also of our intellectual freedom. And it was a patronizing affront to us as students.
Context and delivery matter; Bindle wasn't ranting on a street corner - she wanted to lecture in a university. The importance of what Mill labeled "truth discovery" is particularly pertinent in academia. Sometimes we may have to listen to views we despise, because elements of them, or critique they offer, may contribute to a productive conversation. Thus by censoring any voice, we may make it harder to attain truth. Today, Gender is said to be social constructed, but twenty years ago it was widely thought to be a biologically real category. This is a live-ish intellectual debate and to engage with it is likely some view will offend you.
In modern pluralistic democracies, and in particular universities, there are in fact few matters worth debating that will not elicit a viewpoint that someone will find offensive, shocking, or disturbing. But disagreement is the 'lifeblood' of democracy and of intellectual debate. I expected to disagree with people as much as I hoped to agree with them when I came here. I wanted university to be truly diverse, a real melting pot of ideas, the conservative and the radical, the adversarial and polemic and some times the offensive - but also the deliberative, the synthesizing, and the compromising.
The democratic credentials of our union 'representatives' are flimsy at best - winners of an apathetic popularity contest at worst - and their remit certainly does not extend to choosing who gets a platform according to who they agree with. Most worryingly though, what happened in Sheffield was not an isolated case. It's part of worrying trend; University College London Union closed a Nietzsche reading group because they regarded it as fascist and the University of Derby Students' Union briefly banned UKIP members from the campus as they clamed the party posed a threat to the safety of students.
Freedom of speech is under threat on British campuses, but "not only by freedom's oldest enemies - the despots and ruling thieves who fear it - but also by new enemies who claim to speak for justice not tyranny," to use the words of the late Ronald Dworkin. The NUS and our Union probably do believe they speak for justice, they're paternalistic, they think they know what's good for us to hear and not to hear - they think we can't think critically for ourselves as a student. It's insulting.