Free Speech At Universities – Is It Really Under Threat?

By Sam Woolfe on 11-07-2017
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You may think of universities as the arenas in which free speech can flourish, since they are where big and controversial ideas are exchanged and discussed. Indeed, for many students, it’s this ‘marketplace of ideas’ that shapes – perhaps even radically – their views on certain subjects.

Recently, fears have arisen that some institutions could be stifling free speech. Some commentators have slammed the National Union of Students (NUS) for being part of the problem. But are these fears just exaggerating minor issues?

Depending on your political persuasion, you may think that the freedom to express oneself fully must be defended at all costs. When it comes to expressing hateful opinions, however, things get tricky. If a thing you say incites violence or terror, it becomes immediately contentious – but should it really be prevented altogether? Even if the idea expressed is morally abhorrent, isn’t hearing and challenging it the most mature and effective way to reject it?

NUS under fire

One of the most controversial aspects of NUS policy is its ‘No Platform Policy’. The policy prevents racist or fascist organisations from speaking at NUS events. If you believe that hate speech should be banned, then this would appear reasonable.

However, back in 2016, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said that this policy has gone too far. He believes it is a genuine threat to free speech. In his own words:

“All bigots should be protested. I don’t think people with offensive views should be given a free pass. They should be challenged. The best way to do this is by open debate to refute their intolerance. If you censor or ban them, the ideas just get suppressed. They don't cease to exist and they cannot be effectively countered.”

Nick Lowles, chief executive at HOPE Not Hate – an advocacy group that “campaigns to counter racism and fascism” (including anti-Muslim hatred) – was no-platformed by the NUS for apparently being Islamophobic, because he had repeatedly condemned Islamist extremism. Lowles responded by saying that the NUS had “officially become a joke” and accused it of “ultra-left lunacy”.

Increased censorship

In October 2015, a debate was scheduled at the University of Manchester titled ‘From Liberation to Censorship: Does Modern Feminism Have a Problem With Free Speech?’ But ironically, two controversial speakers – writers Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopolous – were banned from participating in this debate on censorship.

Moreover, a report published this year found that more than 9 in 10 UK universities restrict free speech. Worryingly, almost two thirds (63.5%) of the institutions examined were “severely” restrictive of free speech.

In the US, it’s a similar story: “overwhelming evidence” indicates that free speech is threatened on campuses. Many free speech advocates worry that this problem of censorship is snowballing and that universities are no longer safe havens for free speech, but ‘safe spaces’ in which students are ‘protected’ from certain ideas. It’s not clear if the situation will get worse or improve, or how those changes will occur. But it is a problem that the NUS needs to address, as increasing numbers of universities are disaffiliating from the organisation.

Sam Woolfe writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching career starters with graduate jobs. For everything from marketing internships to graduate jobs Manchester, click here.

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