The principle of free expression is increasingly under threat across the Western world. Speech that might upset or annoy someone is being categorised as “hate speech” and thus placed beyond the pale in acceptable society. According to a recent Pew poll, 38% of British people now agree that the government should be able to prevent people saying things that are offensive to minority groups. Worryingly, even fewer support free speech in the rest of Europe.
And of course it would be entirely up to those minority groups to tell us what they deem offensive, which would allow them a veto over all public discourse. Nor are such concerns merely theoretical. Currently we have a preacher being prosecuted for describing Islam as “Satanic”. Whatever happened to the very bedrock of Western liberties, Voltaire’s: “I disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”?
In the UK the movement to censor offensive speech is strongest in the universities. The idea prevalent nowadays is that, by disagreeing with you on any matter you hold dear, a speaker is “invalidating” your views, which is akin to “invalidating” your status as a human being. Thus any campus where such speech occurs is not a “safe place” for you, and thus any such speech must be banned. (Of course you would equally be disagreeing with the speaker, but since he is, by dint of disagreeing with you, a hateful person, his feelings don’t count.)
At Warwick University an invitation to anti-Islamist human-rights campaigner Maryam Namazie was initially rescinded because her speech would likely be “highly inflammatory and could incite hatred”.
I’m never quite sure about such claims; is the worry that her speech might cause people to hate Muslims (that’s unlikely, her family is Muslim, and she regards Muslims as her own people, would she really incite hatred against them?), or is it that her speech might cause Islamists to hate her (which, of course, they already do)? And is the latter really a basis for banning speech? “No, no, you can’t speak against bigots or fascists, they might dislike you!”.
Then there was the petition at Cardiff University to ban a speech by doughty feminist campaigner Germaine Greer, because nowadays she doesn’t espouse quite the right flavour of social-justice ideology.
Most ludicrous of all, at University College London a speaker who had fought against ISIS and for the Kurdish cause was banned from speaking because: “In every conflict there are two sides, and at UCLU we want to avoid taking sides in conflicts”.
Why are we giving student unions the power to veto speakers? I can understand that, from a university’s point of view when arranging such events, having to deal only with the union makes things easier, but surely administrative convenience should not be the deciding factor! Surely universities should pride themselves on the range of conflicting viewpoints being presented, so that students find their views being challenged as a means to their intellectual development?
Indeed, British universities have a legal duty to promote diversity of speech. The 1986 Education Act requires that:
“… persons concerned in the government of any [university] … shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.”
This clearly requires that universities enable visiting speakers to speak, even if the student union doesn’t like it (save only that the speaker stays within the law). Universities need to provide a mechanism where any group of students can bypass the union and hold an event regardless of union approval. Further, the university must require that the union not retaliate against any such group (e.g. by withdrawing funding). If that causes the universities some administrative hassle, then so be it.
In my opinion the only restrictions should be on speech that directly incites violence. Going with the modern trend, however, the government is planning a new duty on universities to prohibit “extremist speakers”, though so far we don’t have details of how that is defined. That, however, is a different issue from allowing students to veto speech.
As it is, we are allowing relatively young students — acting as officers of their union — to veto other people’s speech based on their own views and feelings. At Warwick it was Benjamin David, a student union official, who vetoed the visit of Maryam Namazie “because after researching both her and her organisation, a number of flags have been raised”. At UCL it was union officer Asad Khan who declared that he couldn’t allow the anti-ISIS speech because the Syrian crisis is “a very contentious topic” which is “far too complex to understand in black and white”. (How kind of him to allow us to hear only things that he thinks we’ll understand.)
If student unions get to evaluate and to accept or decline visiting speakers then that implicitly endorses the idea that speech should only be allowed if approved by appropriate authorities — and that is a rejection of the whole principle of free expression, which is that you should be allowed to speak your mind even if the authorities heartily dislike your speech and want to shut you down.
The excuse that the union officials are elected representatives of the whole student body doesn’t change that. The idea that a majority of students can vote to suppress the speech of a minority is again a rejection of the very principle of free expression.
We thus need to overturn the whole idea that student unions can assess and veto speaker invitations issued by any group of students. Of course other students would then be entitled to demonstrate against the event, but not to disrupt or veto it. One might hope that this would get more students used to the principles and the actual practice of free speech — and to the idea that you counter speech you dislike or disagree with by speaking up yourself, but not by vetos or by taking to the fainting couch and demanding a “safe space”.
At the University of Manchester a group of students formed a “Manchester Free Speech Association”, independent of the Student Union, in order to host a debate on the topic “Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?”. To its credit the University cooperated with this group, providing it with a room and security. Since it was independent, the Student Union could not veto this group, though this does mean that it receives no funding.
Meanwhile, at Goldsmiths University, the censors at the Student Union are claiming ever more control over speech. They are threatening the Atheist and Humanist Society with “disciplinary action” over their hosting of Maryam Namazie, and are requiring that they undergo “comprehensive and compulsory annual training” to ensure compliance with their “safe space policy”.