THE BLOG

Does the UK Have a Free Speech Problem?

25/03/2016 16:55 GMT | Updated 24/03/2017 09:12 GMT

This was first published in the Student Voices Spring Magazine

Free speech on university campuses is an issue that is being brought up time and time again. It's certainly not anything new, but if trends recorded by the likes of 'The Free Speech University Rankings' (FSUR), by the online magazine Spiked, are anything to go by then free speech on campuses appears to be declining. The FSUR categorised 115 UK universities into a red, amber and green traffic light system. Their research shockingly found that 90% of universities have either 'banned and actively censored ideas on campus' or 'chilled free speech through intervention', with just 10% having a 'hands-off approach to free speech'. In gathering this data they looked at the policies of universities and student unions. Over 55% were given a red 'traffic light'. This widespread stifling of free speech is terrible, but it doesn't tell the whole story. While universities and student unions do their bit to prevent free speech it is sometimes the student response which prevents a person coming to give a speech on university campuses. This is a dangerous approach and one that desperately needs challenging.

Our other two articles in this magazine which tackle the free speech issue gave good examples of where speakers had been banned from speaking on campuses. I find the Milo Yiannopoulos example particularly interesting. In fact, he's been invited and subsequently 'banned' from speaking at a number of universities, including the University of York. York's UKIP association invited Milo to speak on campus about the university cancelling a decision to mark International Men's Day (an entirely different issue altogether). However, the backlash by students against him coming and talking at the university was so great that the event was forced to be cancelled. Now, personally I would not attend an event with this man. He's previously expressed views that are ridiculously sexist and backward-thinking (such as him suggesting there may be a 'scientific basis to why women don't succeed as well in science'). He's really just a loud-shouting internet troll who feeds off attention he gets from causing controversy. But just because I think this and wouldn't want to listen to him speak, does that mean I should have the right to demand he be banned from speaking at my university? No, not in any way, shape or form. There are evidently people who do, for God knows what reason, want to listen to him and they have the right to do so if they choose; and those who don't do not have to. But it is dangerous to say that just because you don't agree with the views of a speaker invited to your university you want them banned. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened in York, where YUSU (York Undergraduate Student Union) took it upon them to censor what the people they are supposed to represent hear. According to one student newspaper, the President of the union said 'he will lobby the University to ban Yiannopoulos'. The reaction to the whole event by the student union and some students was disappointing. Instead of challenging Yiannopoulos on his ridiculous opinions, we want to block him and his views out as if they don't exist. This is far from the 'liberal' label traditionally associated with universities.

One thing that keeps being brought up when talking about free speech at universities is the idea of 'safe spaces'. But I think this whole thing has got out of hand. There are a dangerous minority of people saying that people like Milo, and pretty much anyone who could be considered offensive, should be banned from campuses and that campuses should be a universal 'safe space'. However, this is not a widespread view whatsoever and many of those who put forward the idea of safe spaces don't want anything like that. For most, the idea of a safe space is a physical space away from the sorts of views which are likely to offend. For example, if a speaker such as Milo comes in some may want a room next door where people can go if they feel they need to leave. To some extent this does baffle me; if you're not able to go to an event because you're too offended, why are you going in the first place? Though I can see them being a good idea when issues such as mental health are being discussed. But my view here is fairly irrelevant. If there are people who want it, let them have it. As long as they're not preventing those who want to have free speech and debate on campus from exercising.

Despite what appears to be a trend towards more oppression of free speech on university campuses, there is a growing counter-movement. When researching for this article I came across a campaign called '#Right2Debate' (right2debate.org), and it is spot on. They say "extremist ideologies must be challenged by an empowered civil society". This is how progress occurs, by debating and proving wrong extremist and harmful ideologies by putting forward a more convincing argument. If we don't allow this to happen then these views go unchallenged and potentially become more dangerous. Students have a right to debate and a right to invite controversial speakers. Similarly, students have a right to their own 'safe spaces' and most importantly a right to object to the views of these controversial speakers. However, they do not and should not have the right to prevent others from debating and they certainly should not have the right to ban speakers from coming to their university.

Free speech is one of the most important elements of democracy. Without free speech, we don't have meaningful debate. Without debate we can't hear new ideas, we can't challenge bad ideas and we can't find the best conclusions: we can't progress as a society. That is why it is so important for us to call out those who want to stifle free speech. It is essential that we are able to continue hearing and challenging views. There are some who choose to abuse their right to free speech by harassing and bullying others, but don't oppose free speech because of this - use your right to free speech to oppose their views.