On free speech in universities

There’s been a worrying trend of late for some university staff and (especially) students to want to create a “safe space” where feelings aren’t hurt. Don’t get me wrong, universities should be safe spaces in many respects: they should be places where everyone is safe from physical harm, for example, and from bullying; and they should be places where one should feel safe to study and say whatever one wants in an academic context. There should also be places of retreat, where students can go to avoid the rough and tumble of open discourse, some of which can and should be very challenging.

But students should not want, and not be able to, avoid those challenging ideas when it comes to their studies, and they should want to continue that exposure in extra-curricular settings too. “Safe space” should never mean, or come to mean, a real or virtual place where one can discuss one’s subject without having one’s ideas challenged, or that one can choose if one wishes to avoid chunks of a subject because you’re prejudiced against them or you think they go against your beliefs.**

But I am not in favour of unrestricted free speech at universities. Certain viewpoints are beyond the pale. For example, the view that certain people ought to be killed for their beliefs. The argument for unrestricted free speech is that people with abhorrent views should be allowed to speak and their ideas will be evidently foolish and no-one will agree with them, or that their interlocutors will easily defeat them in debate. But this is naïve.

Time and again we see people saying the most ridiculous things – often met with derision – and yet people support them. David Icke was laughed at the night he first appeared on “Wogan” spouting his nonsense, and people still laugh at him now, but he now has millions of followers! The oxygen of publicity is a potent substance.

Go to a Truth Juice event, or to a fundamentalist religious meeting, and, as sad as it may be, no-one, or almost no-one, leaves the event going “Crikey, that was bollocks!” It’s so easy to get swept up in a one-sided argument. And even when it’s a debate, people have a tendency to side with a person, or a group of people, rather than listening properly to the words and computing what they mean. Look for example at the activities of IERA. Hamza Tzortzis is very happy to debate with atheists. He is completely confident that no-one in the audience who is “on his side” will change sides by the end. At debates between groups, people come to cheer their side as much as to listen to what is said. And often the tone and the phrasing of the “opposition” doesn’t match the language one is used to, and this makes it almost inaudible.

So, yes, let’s have free speech in universities. If you don’t want to listen, don’t ban someone or shout them down, just go back to your room. But let’s not have speech that breaks laws, whether or not it is considered to be somehow defensible because of historical or religious acceptability. Rhetoric is a powerful tool and sometimes it should be treated like we treat viruses and isotopes, and only experimented on under laboratory conditions, wearing suitable protection.

Adrian Bailey

**There is a caveat to this. There are people, quite a lot of people, who have particular problems: perhaps they’ve served in Afghanistan, or they’ve been sexually molested, or they suffer from depression, and so on, and universities do have a duty of care. University can be a difficult place at the best of times, and for some people it can be very hard indeed, and it’s in no-one’s interest to be blasé. So, yes, as ludicrous as it may sound, some lectures and texts should have “trigger warnings”, and tutors and therapists should discuss individual difficulties with students in order that they can get the most out of their studies without causing themselves further harm.


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