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The Narrative On University Safe Spaces And No-Platform Policies Couldn't Be Further From The Truth

10/02/2017 17:31 GMT | Updated 10/02/2017 17:31 GMT
NUS

There is a popular myth that my generation cannot tolerate offensive opinions.

We are, after all, the so-called 'Snowflake Generation' - more concerned with protecting ourselves from the harsh realities of a brutal world - than confronting it head on.

 

This could not be further from the truth.

Ours is a generation that, faced with increasing hate in the wake of anti-migrant referendum campaigns and the election of Donald Trump, is determined to tackle it. We have seen incredible mobilisations of students around the world, utilising their own freedom of expression to secure liberty for all citizens.

Those who seek to portray us as delicate flowers do so because they wish to preserve the freedom of expression for some, but not others. They believe that liberty should exist for the privileged, even if it's at the expense of the rest of us. 

My organisation, the National Union of Students (NUS), is often cited as offender-in-chief. This is despite the fact that there are only six organisations currently on the NUS No Platform list and a recent poll by the BBC found that nearly two-thirds of students believed we were right to hold such a policy.

As for university campuses, ChangeSU revealed last year that out of 50 Students' Unions surveyed, not a single one had banned a speaker in the last 12 months.

Spiked Magazine annually releases its 'Free Speech Rankings' report, which predictably proclaims the creeping menace of big brother on our campuses. Only a cursory look at the evidence supplied, however, shows that it takes no more than a simple anti-bullying policy to be declared an existential threat to the freedom of the individual.

So if, contrary to popular belief, there is not a crisis of censorship upon our campuses - what is all the fuss about?

The student movement has adhered to a No Platform policy since the 1970s. Then, as now, there existed fascist groups that sought to exploit democratic platforms in order to subvert them. Fascist organisations do not believe in democracy: and the lesson learnt from history is that, when enabled, they will use it in order to ultimately destroy it. For those of us that remember the horrors of the past, it has become a duty to ensure that fascists are refused a platform, so that the mistakes of history are not made again.

Fascists are not given platforms because they would exploit them to undermine the fundamental rights of others. Freedom of speech is not and has never been limitless - acknowledged by its great proponents from John Milton to Isaiah Berlin.

Freedom of speech exists insofar as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. If freedom of expression is a universal right for all, it is necessary that it is not used to deprive the rights of others. We know that if someone is allowed to freely espouse racist views without challenge, it can directly contribute to a culture where people from those oppressed groups and communities no longer feel safe. This is an infringement on their rights to freely express themselves without fear or harm of injury. In this instance, the rights of the aggressor are prioritised over those of a marginalised group.

Apparently, Safe spaces are, similarly, presented as a fundamental infringement upon the universal right to free expression. Again, this could not be further from the truth.

Not all students' unions have safe space policies, but where they do, they consist of guidance aimed at encouraging an environment free from harassment and fear - one in which marginalised groups can enjoy their own freedom of expression. This should be distinguished from no platform which is focused on a tiny number of far-right, fascist organisations.

We do this because if we believe that freedom must be a universal principle, we have to start by acknowledging that we live in an unequal society. Simply put, some voices are louder than others. Safe spaces allow us to amplify certain voices to ensure that freedom of expression, whether through speech or protest, is attainable even for the most oppressed in our society.

None of this is controversial in any other context. In the 'real world', we have laws against defamation, libel and hate speech to protect us from harm. We actively strive to expand the opportunities of the most vulnerable in our society: to widen access to university for working-class students, and to tackle the Black attainment gap.

Yet when we implement exactly those principles, we are of closing our ears and shutting out the world.

If those such as Spiked Magazine were so keen to protect the liberty of all, perhaps they would be combating real problems like the governments racist Prevent agenda, which turns universities into an extension of the surveillance state, and seeks to force staff to monitor and racially profile students in a flimsy and failed attempt to tackle radicalisation. Perhaps they would campaign against the repressive injunctions held by several universities, designed to dissuade dissent and democratic protest by student activists.

It's time we recognised this narrative for what it is: a systematic attempt to undermine and trivialise practices developed through years of hard work and campaigning to defend the rights of marginalised and oppressed groups.

For those who believe freedom of expression and thus freedom from oppression to be a universal right, we must reclaim the mantle as the true champions of liberty.

Malia Bouattia is the president of the National Union of Students (NUS)