THE BLOG

Free Speech, Not Hate Speech

01/03/2016 11:12 GMT | Updated 01/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Free speech is certainly the zeitgeist of 2016, with Spiked Online leading a campaign against students' unions. As a staunch supporter of free speech, and the lead representative at LSE Students' Union, we've seen some controversies that have portrayed our approach as hostile, as opposed to welcoming of this as a value.

However, recent debates about whether to ban a free speech society at LSESU show that students, and students' unions, categorically do support free speech. What Spiked Online are fighting for is a more vitriolic, discriminatory use of language that can be used to marginalise certain groups.

The democratic organisation of students' unions is fundamentally important when it comes to the debate ensuing around free speech. Students' Unions are political, charitable organisations that are member led and defined by the thoughts, intentions, and actions of the students that we represent.

They are run by elected representatives, and at LSESU we are proud to have had over 50 per cent of undergraduates voting in our elections, and over 30 per cent of postgraduates, meaning that we have greater legitimacy than the Mayor of London (with a turnout of 38.1 per cent).

While it is near impossible to ever have one cohesive political view among the student body, it is by and large the students making the decisions themselves, or voting through a representative democracy structure for representatives who they feel embody their values. Tom Slater describes the student body as being 'told what to think by students' union bureaucrats'. As a Union with the highest levels of engagement in the country, what LSESU does is determined by what LSE students think, not the other way round.

Now, time to examine the substance of claims that free speech is being curtailed. The free speech often talked about is the 'freedom to offend', or hate speech. Now, I believe in the freedom to offend, insofar as it does not amount to bullying, harassment, or discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics, as defined by the Equality Act. Telling someone they have poor taste in music, fine. I feel offended when people insult my taste in Nickelback, but it is no grounds for divorce.

What Spiked Online is really trying to defend is a form of 'offense' that amounts to the aforementioned bullying, harassment, or discrimination.

One example cited of 'curtailment of free speech' by Spiked Online is the disbandment of the LSE men's rugby club, after they produced a sexist, homophobic, classist, and racist leaflet. Examples of this use of language include claiming to hold "misogyny dear" as a club value - otherwise known as the hatred of women, describing female netball players as slags, and claiming to not tolerate "homosexual debauchery". Students were not simply insulted, they felt discriminated against and vilified on the basis of identity.

Another example of the "freedom to offend" that Spiked online attempts to defend and protect, is sexual harassment. Apparently, it is against free speech to have a zero tolerance to sexual harassment policy, despite the fact that in any workplace, if you are sexually harassed, people of all genders have rights against that form of discrimination.

Having a policies and making decisions on forms of 'offence' that target and marginalise groups brings students' unions in line with what happens in the real world, outside the university bubble. Taking action against student groups who use discriminatory language to promote dominance of white, heterosexual men over every other group is not censorious, it is the right thing to do.

Women, BME students, LGBT+ students, disabled students, students of different religions - these groups all remain the ones where voices can be limited by a university environment that privileges the voice of those most advantaged in society over everyone else.

And that is why free speech is vitally important - and it has to be for everyone. We should fight for that, rather than conflating free speech and freedom to offend as if they are one and the same.

I'm proud that students' unions, as democratically led organisations, are challenging the status quo, taking action against lad culture, and carving out a positive, equitable environment that respects all voices. I'm proud that our Students' Union facilitated a free speech society in the first place, and subsequently voted to keep it after a student attempted to ban it - it is testament to our pluralism as a Union.

Looking forward, it is my hope that Spiked Online will start to engage with free speech in a more broader sense than simply being anti-equality, and cease to patronise students by assuming that they are simply subject to SU diktats.

And if the debate around free speech is legitimately concerned with free speech for all, then we should start having a wider debate about how to secure free speech for everyone, especially groups traditionally silenced by the white, patriarchal structures in our society. Without engaging with these issues, the current polemic around students' unions is simply an attempt to legitimise a certain type of free speech, a markedly discriminatory interpretation of the 'freedom to offend'.

And that is, quite simply, intolerable.