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At Some British Universities, Free Speech Comes at a Price.

08/03/2017 12:34
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Spiked Online

In today's world of highly divergent and contrasting political opinion, the concept of free speech is imperative for a fully functioning democracy to dispel any threat of authoritarianism. Though free speech certainly continues to exist in the Western world, recent events at British universities - the cornerstone of education for future generations - suggests a gradual, and concerning, encroachment upon it.

A recent study published in the Free Speech University Rankings has revealed that over ninety percent of British universities have been involved in restricting speakers on their campuses this year. Indeed, the results displayed that almost two-thirds of all the universities in the U.K. studied were 'severely restrictive' of free speech. Worryingly for proponents of free speech, this is an upward trend: the proportion of high-concern or "red" universities has risen this year to 23.5 percent up from 15 percent in 2016. This erosion of free speech - manifested in actions such as the banning of certain newspapers on campus - has prompted public criticism on the way in which universities handle free speech.

The creation of 'safe spaces' within a university - an environment whereby students are protected from negative discrimination and inimical speech - is partly understandable in its aims of preventing disharmony and discord, but is a fundamentally flawed concept. For the active forbiddance of others that hold a different viewpoint - even if projected in a manner that may be perceived as controversial - is a form of discrimination and exclusion in itself: ironically, the very things that proponents of 'safe spaces' tend to rally against. The university experience is one where learning should be prioritized and fostered - being exposed to opinions that differ from one's own is a vital component and simply unavoidable component of this.

A collection of other examples suggests the very gradual erosion of free expression of. The song 'Blurred Lines' by Robin Thicke has been banned from several universities across the country, including Leeds and Edinburgh, due to its explicit nature. In the field of politics and activism, a UKIP politician was prevented from speaking at the University of East Anglia, and writer Julie Bindel - a feminist well known for her criticism of gender reassignment surgery and transgenderism - was branded a 'vile transphobe' by the NUS and was banned from speaking at Manchester University.

Further examples of the barring of public figures exist: the spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims and a campaigner for feminism and secularism, Maryam Namazie, had been banned from speaking at Warwick University due to being overly "inflammatory". The protests midway through author Yaron Brook's speech at my place of study, Exeter University, is another of several examples of the irrational suppression of viewpoints that conflict with those of protesters. Rather than encouraging open debate and the resultant learning from others' beliefs, a dangerous culture of censorship and incarceration of legitimate beliefs is slowly forming.

The sharp increase in universities' willingness to increase inclusivity and harmony (though paradoxically creating the opposite effect) is not confined to the U.K. In the United States, 'free speech zones' have been specially designated to deliver protests or speeches - last year, a man was forbidden from praying at Clemson University due to being outside the university's 'free speech zone'. In 2014, a student from Citrus College in California was threatened with expulsion from campus having been caught petitioning against the spying of the National Security Agency outside of the school's designated free speech zone. Numerous other instances abound, but the intercontinental trend of silencing opinions that are viewed as unconventional or subjectively disagreeable is clear.

The problem may rest upon universities' desires to maintain their students' satisfaction, and consequently their national rankings. As explained by Baroness Wolf, professor at King's College London, "universities are increasingly nervous about anything that will create overt dissatisfaction among students, because they are being told that student satisfaction is key." Recent governmental plans to give student satisfaction a far higher level of influence in the university ranking system has prompted widespread criticism from politicians and academics alike, describing the proposition as 'fantastically dangerous'.

University education must not be treated as a business through prioritizing the satisfaction of their students (perhaps 'customers' a more apposite term) over the formative learning experience that is the very essence of studying at university.

The NUS and proponents of 'safe spaces' respond through their strident assertions of the differences between 'free speech' and 'hate speech'. This is, of course, a valid point and individuals who explicitly incite hatred and encourage violence should rightfully be banned. However, the lines between 'free' and 'hate' speech must not be blurred, and a clear distinction should be made between those who purposefully provoke with hate, and others who are naturally opinionated and hold unorthodox views. The former encourages destruction, the latter constructive learning; it is vital to not conflate the two.

To be able to learn new aspects of life and change our perceptions, we must be able to view political and cultural debates through several different lenses- and strive to not intentionally be guided by a single one. Universities' intentions to protect students from discrimination and hurt is understandable, though paradoxically creates more harm than good. Narrowing the opportunity to be exposed to diverse views restricts their ability to learn and leads to the reinforcement of their beliefs without challenge; immunizing students from the intellectual and political debate leaves them ill-equipped for the future.

As George Orwell stated, "if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear" - the onus is now on British universities to help preserve this essential liberty.

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