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Daniel Clifford looks at censorship across UK and US campuses and the fundamental issues with the lack of free speech on campus
There is, without any doubt, an effort from students across the UK and US to censor, ban, and remove any ideas or speakers that may cause offence. One might say, hasn’t this been talked about before by people like Brendan O’Neill in Spiked, aren’t there loads of articles written by academics and journalists challenging this student driven censorship? There are, and there is some really good material out there, but it’s rare to see the student perspective on this. Unfortunately in the minority it seems, but nevertheless, I’m one of the students who believes in free speech, without any “but” at the end.
Humour can be a great tool in getting across a serious message. Sometimes though the joke will be written for you. One can’t help but laugh at the recent shambles on the part of the Students’ Union in Manchester University last month. On an upcoming event organised by students, a guest speaker journalist Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from speaking to students by the SU. For those of us who keep an eye on this trend, this really isn’t anything new. It happens all the time. The unique thing about this event though, which is tragic in its own right, is the fact Yiannopoulos was going to speak in a debate on… guess what? “From liberation to censorship: does feminism have a free-speech problem?” There’s a lot of irony to be found in a debate on censorship where a speaker was censored, in fact two speakers were censored: Yiannopoulos and feminist author Julie Bindel.
God forbid that Yiannopoulos or Bindel might change the mind of any student while speaking on campus. I fully believe students and SUs across the UK and US have given up on the fundamental belief in free expression and free inquiry and have instead opted for a form of higher level babysitting. It used to be the case that students were prevented by colleges from expressing radical, revolutionary or offensive views, but now it’s the opposite: students are banning other students’ and speakers’ right to an opinion.
“Students and SUs across the UK and US have given up on the fundamental belief in free expression and free inquiry and have instead opted for a form of higher level babysitting.”
Manchester University SU has a safe space policy, which, they said in their address to students, would have been violated by Yiannopoulos and Bindel due to their dissenting ideas. The safe space extends to the whole campus, and basically nowhere on Manchester University’s campus can one express views that may be viewed as politically incorrect less they be subject to penalties. From Yiannopoulos’ view on feminism to Bindel’s views on trans people, both have been banned for some trumped up charge which in essence boils down to, “we don’t like the fact you disagree with us, so you won’t be visiting anytime soon”. This whole issue stems from the contemporary belief that one’s right to be comfortable is more important than one’s right to express their opinion.
Yiannopoulos and Bindel have opinions that disagree with the SU, and students of Manchester will never get to hear their views, however right or wrong they may be. Both speakers were deemed as being able to “incite violence”. The term “incitement to violence” is thrown on any speaker or student who may disagree with the party line, and has no bearing on their actual opinions. There is absolutely no basis for this position by the SU, and worryingly there is no limit to this blanket ban on all disagreeable ideas. I use the term blanket because that is exactly what campuses are doing: wrapping students up in intellectual blankets and protecting them from ideas they may dislike.
Freedom of inquiry really is central to our education. As a philosophy student, I can’t imagine being told, “well, Arthur Schopenhauer would have a great response to your question, but unfortunately someone decided for you that he was too offensive to their views, so you’re unable to hear it, sorry”. Stifling your own education and learning is a shame, but stifling mine and that of hundreds of others’ because you feel slightly put off by someone’s view is absolutely outrageous.
Laughably, Oxford University’s SU banned a magazine called “No Offensive” promoting free speech from distribution as it was deemed “offensive”. Is this not a problem for students who value free inquiry? Yet, one article in the Trinity newspaper, Trinity News has argued that this isn’t a problem, saying “Contrary to popular belief, nobody is trying to turn the entire world, or even the entire college campus into the safe space”. Well, Manchester SU has, Warwick University banned Maryam Namazie from a speaking event for fear she might offend Muslim students and the Oxford SU banned two men from speaking in an abortion debate, coming under pressure from students who felt “unsafe” hearing two men discuss the topic.
This is a problem, and these are just a handful of examples. One merely has to Google Spiked’s Free Speech Campaign or FIRE (Freedom of Individual Rights to Education) to see the numerous cases of censorship that have occurred on college campuses. This is a problem that lies within the student body: it is the new generation of hyper-sensitive students who have taken it upon themselves to rid the campuses of ideas they dislike. They have chosen on my behalf and yours to turn campuses into anti-intellectual bubbles into which no ideas can enter. To me, and to many students, as well as lecturers and staff, freedom to speak, to exercise one’s right to say over another’s offence without fear of censorship is of utmost importance on campus.
Free speech is one of those values I would maintain is core to a progressive college. Ideas must be allowed to be heard, critiqued and assessed, and every individual has a right to this. It is not acceptable that an SU or student may decide for us what we can and cannot hear. Ironically, those deemed socially progressive, advancing causes in the way of “safe spaces” and “preventing offence” are more conservative than the conservative views themselves that they try so hard to keep out of campuses.