Free Speech in Universities

After the somewhat controversial visit of Milo Yiannopolous to UCD two weeks ago, Rosemarie Gibbons examines how UCD feels about free speech.[br]Manchester University, October 2015: Milo Yiannopoulos, a British journalist, and Julie Bindel, British writer and feminist, were invited to take part in a debate entitled “From liberation to censorship: does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?” by a student society. Both parties were promptly, and drastically, disinvited due to a Student Union backlash. The fact that two controversial public figures exercising their respective rights to free speech were disinvited from an event to debate that very topic is a sign of an issue much deeper.Recently, UCD’s Economics Society held an event entitled ‘Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?’ with guest of honour, Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos speaking is an alluring prospect; his reputation as a controversial speaker meant he was sure to get an audience.Conor McCabe, auditor of the Economics Society, spoke on the decision to invite Yiannapoulos: “Free speech and political correctness would not ostensibly be issues that an economics society would deal with, but our committee also has responsibility for Thinking Big, a series of lectures where we aim to tackle the big issues facing society today. We felt that in recent years, a culture of excessive political correctness has permeated university campuses. Universities and students' unions seem to be increasingly more concerned with protecting students from offence rather than upholding the liberal values of free speech and open debate upon which they were founded”.
Despite people’s common sense and personal beliefs, research shows that we are more likely to listen to someone who appears to be in a position of power.
“We hoped that by inviting Milo to speak we would be able to ‘start a dialogue’, to borrow the cliché, about these issues on campus and to draw attention to some of (what we see as) the hypocrisy inherent in the modern liberal movement,” says McCabe. “We were certainly aware that he is a controversial person and some students may well have been offended by his visit to UCD, but we did not feel that this was enough of a justification to deny him a platform to speak”.As was anticipated by the Economics Society, not everyone was as thrilled with the news of Yiannopoulos’ visit. Niamh Ni Chormac is a member of the UCD Feminist Book Club, a group which publicly opposed Yiannopoulos’ visit. “When I heard that Milo Yiannopoulos had been invited by the Economics Society to speak to students, I was disappointed but not entirely surprised. There is a culture within UCD where anything goes, where controversy around an event serves as more publicity for whichever society is involved.”She adds, “In this case, the Economics Society was delighted to “start a dialogue” – never mind the fact that they did not allow a platform for that dialogue to come about in any balanced way.”Ni Chormac also commented on whether it was truly harmful that a figure such as Mr. Yiannopoulos spoke to students or was he simply offering an alternative point of view. “When it comes to controversial figures like Milo, the conversation surrounding them focuses on an abstract and philosophical idea that we should all sit and listen for the sake of free speech. While free speech is important, and no one is saying that it isn’t, it doesn’t entitle you to an uncontested platform. I think that it is harmful for such a big campus society to endorse the views of Mr. Yiannopoulos without offering an alternative view.”In response to the news of the impending visit by Mr. Yiannopoulos, the Feminist Book Club decided to pen an open letter to those in the Economics Society. The letter asked the organisers to make the event into a debate, with someone representing an alternate point of view.
Universities, once bastions of liberalism and open debate, have been moving down the path of cultural authoritarianism under the guise of political correctness and inclusivity
The open letter said: “The Economics Society has given Milo Yiannopoulos a pedestal to influence students of UCD, and despite people’s common sense and personal beliefs, research shows that we are more likely to listen to someone who appears to be in a position of power.”In response to the open letter, McCabe says they were open to suggestions. “We considered the requests of the Feminist Book Club but the letter was only sent to us on the morning of the event. We had agreed a format for the event in advance with Milo and springing a change of format on him with such short notice would not have been professional.”Yiannopoulos has also voiced his disdain about university promoted 'safe space' policies (a policy agreed upon by an educational institution to have a no-tolerance attitude towards any form of ‘hate speech’ directed towards a certain minority group), and was banned from speaking at Manchester University as his view didn't line up with their individual safe space policy.On whether this 'safe space' model could work in UCD, McCabe remarks that although his views cannot represent all member of Econ Soc, he believes “a university mandated ‘safe space’ would be a disaster that not just threatens but completely undermines the values universities supposedly espouse. Gone would be the intellectual curiosity and diversity of opinion that the university currently tries to instil in its students. Instead, we would be left with a group think with little room for individual reasoning”.Ni Chormac, on the other hand, believes that “there is something to be said for safe spaces within universities. Let’s not pretend that there is anything new about what Milo is saying. It’s the same homophobia and misogyny that’s plagued society for centuries. Safe spaces allow those who have been silenced to speak up.”The open letter, which The Economics Society and The Philosophical Society sent in response to the Feminist Book Club also gave an opinion on free speech: “We think that it is important to be exposed to views you might find unpalatable and it is a move into dangerous territory when universities and Students’ Unions worry more about offending students than protecting free speech on campuses. Universities, once bastions of liberalism and open debate, have been moving down the path of cultural authoritarianism under the guise of political correctness and inclusivity.”Differing opinions of free speech aside, McCabe says the society stands by their decision to invite Yiannopoulos. “The event was very well attended and seemed to be well received by most in attendance.”