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Our universities must outgrow their attacks on freedom of speech


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The concept of ‘freedom of speech,’ like that other three-letter phrase, ‘I love you,’ is deceptive in its simplicity.

Though easy to understand, freedom of speech is in fact very difficult to believe in.

It endures all sorts of attacks all of the time by many different people. In countries less fortunate than ours, it does not exist at all.

Shamefully, it is now under serious threat in Britain, specifically at our universities.

They are supposed to be hot-beds of dissent, where controversial ideas are allowed to flourish, but in recent years, universities have been more concerned about upsetting the feelings of other people.

This concern has manifested itself in calls for ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings,’ perhaps the most infantile ideas I have encountered since nursery school.

I don’t know what it is liked to be ‘triggered,’ but I do get pissed off at just how willing other students are to throw away rights which previous generations fought to defend.

Earlier this year, London's City University, supposedly the training ground for journalists of the future, decided to ban the distribution of certain right-wing tabloid newspapers on campus.

These rags, cried the student counsellors who made the decision, demonised refugees and minorities, fanned the flames and racism and, as if that wasn't bad enough, were sexist, too.

Just a year previously, one of the world’s most famous feminists, Germaine Greer, was told she would not be welcome at Cardiff University because she'd dared to speak her mind about transgender people. 

Now my own campus is at it as well. The University of Strathclyde's Student Association (USSA) has decreed that pro-life campaigners will not be allowed to set up their own student organisation, which would entitle them to funding from the university and accommodation in which to hold meetings.

The USSA's reasoning - if it can be called that - is that pro-life groups have a penchant for resorting to violence and intimidation tactics outside abortion clinics, of which, it has to be said, there are quite a few in Glasgow. They seem to fear that such a group would harass other students, whose feelings are obviously paramount.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the USSA that many of those who are against the idea of abortion take that stance on religious grounds. Usually a student union is keen to be seen defending freedom of faith.

The pro-life group may also wish to raise awareness about contraception, the best way of preventing abortions from happening in the first place.

But no. Instead, the USSA board employed the excuse of concern for the sensibilities of others in order to shut down something to which its members objected.

"Allowing an anti-choice group to form", they said, "would be a barrier to freedom, equality and body autonomy for those with uteruses on campus and therefore not only violate existing standing policy, but also acting against the interests of a large amount of the student population."

Neither those "with uteruses on campus," as it is weirdly phrased, nor anybody else for that matter, have actually been consulted on the issue. Thus a union acting in the name of ‘freedom’ has succeeded in its attempt to censor.

The USSA's president, Raj Jeyaraj, defended the decision. I emailed him with a couple of polite but pointed questions, to which, at the time of writing, he has not replied.

In his own statement, he added for good measure that were the British National Party to attempt to establish their own committee on the union, they would also be barred.

Nick Griffin of the British National Party

There are two reasons why such a decision would be unwise.

Firstly, banning such groups usually puts rocket-boosters on their own determination to cause havoc.

Secondly, allowing them to organise on campus may shake many students out of the complacent belief that racism is just a thing that happens to other people in other places.

So what are the USSA, and other student unions, really afraid of? In any case, they have their safe spaces to go to if they are called something mean.

Freedom of speech, and its related rights such as the right to organise and protest, are so difficult to believe in because they compel you to defend the right of people with whom you profoundly disagree, or may even hate, to speak as they wish.

It's really not that hard, but defending it takes a bit of courage, something which is clearly in short supply on British campus' today.

What I can’t personally get my head around is why universities welcome, even celebrate, cultural and racial diversity, but draw the line at diversity of opinion – the only thing that truly divides human beings.

Students are supposed to rebel, and not just in pathetic ways like smoking or wearing bad clothes. Universities are where they should be allowed to develop their political and social views, no matter how unpopular an authoritarian union deems them to be.

You may think I’m being fussy, but if we do not grow out of this censorious attitude, we will endanger our most fundamental rights.

The era of hurt feelings has to end.

Images by Artemas Liu and Normal4norfolk

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