Safe space and no platforming are once again being discussed after Theresa May attacked the policies during a recent Prime Minister's Questions.
She agreed with MP Victoria Atkins that freedom of speech is being undermined on campuses by a "sense of righteous entitlement by a minority of students". But it is strange to blame students for curtailing free speech at universities when the obvious culprit is May's own Conservative government.
As Home Secretary, Theresa May championed the Prevent agenda, which has created a toxic atmosphere throughout our further and higher education communities. Her legislation placed a duty on education and other public sector workers to monitor students for signs of "radicalisation".
Now Muslim students must constantly watch their words in fear of being referred for de- radicalisation. Societies and groups on campus must inform their institution before inviting speakers to events in order to allow universities and colleges the chance to judge their suitability and require students to invite opposing speakers. With these policies still in place, it is hard to take the Prime Minister's concern for free speech seriously.
In April, the United Nations issued a statement to the British Government which said "it is difficult to define the term 'non-violent extremist' without treading into the territory of policing thought and opinion. Innocent individuals will be targeted. Many more will fear that they may be targeted--whether because of their skin colour, religion or political persuasion--and be fearful of exercising their rights. Both outcomes are unacceptable."
To make matters worse Theresa May now attacks the measures students have developed to support and protect those who work in or use union spaces.
'Safe space' policies are a recognition that we live in a world where oppressed groups can be subject to terrible levels of prejudice, bullying and injustice. They attempt to make sure these things do not take place in our unions.
There is for instance considerable evidence of high levels of bullying against LGBT+ students in schools. We want to be proactive in ensuring that is not the case when those students enter higher or further education. No one should have to study under conditions of bigotry and hate.
It is in that vein that student unions across the country have democratically adopted policies that outline shared standards and principles which recognise and seek to combat discrimination and prejudice. This should not have anyone worried. Rather it marks a commitment to the inclusion of women, Black, LGBT+ and disabled students who so often experience unfair treatment - not only in wider society, but in the education system as well.
If this will be made into a question of 'free speech' we should consider that safe spaces policies are designed to question just who is offered the comfort to speak and where our most marginalised students are being kept silent. This is the opposite of curtailing free speech; it's a challenge to the conditions that currently make voices unequal.
Safe spaces and no platforming are often confused but are not the same thing. At NUS we have a long-standing policy to exclude those organisations that pose a physical threat to oppressed groups. Since the 1970s we have maintained this decision against fascist and racist groups such as the BNP and EDL. For us this is a hard line. It is also very specific - with just six groups on the NUS no platform list. The implication that no platforming is a new and niche position is untrue, but it does have a renewed importance at this time when post-Brexit we have seen increased racist and Islamophobic hate incidents. That the government has shown a lack of interest in tackling this worrying trend yet chooses to criticise our own efforts, reveals their strange priorities.
Of course students and their representatives have the right to choose who they host and the invitations they accept beyond this no platform policy. I fully support our liberation campaigns and the unions we represent in making these choices.
Neither Theresa May's government or its predecessor have proven that they take the safety of this country's students seriously. Instead they have attacked, silenced, criminalised and deported many of us. It isn't steps like safe spaces or no platforming adopted by our students which have stopped "innovation of thought" and threatened how we "develop as a country, society and economy" as May suggested. For that the Prime Minister should take a look at herself and her government.