The topic of free speech is one of the most contentious issues in liberal societies. It can be defined as the right to express one’s ideas and opinions freely through all forms of rhetoric without deliberately causing harm to others’ character and reputation by false or misleading statements. Society’s duty in this context is not to solely pursue an unlimited domain of free speech, but rather to decide on how much value should be placed on speech in relation to other important ideals such as security, privacy and democratic equality but instead decipher whether or not actions taken and opinions made when exercising such a right would directly harm its security, privacy and democratic integrity. How far should British universities go to prohibit the freedom of speech? With this in mind, this article will aim to discuss the extent to which British universities should be able to prohibit freedom of speech.
Universities are often thought of as egalitarian spaces that foster free thought and expression, however recently this perceived freedom has fallen under scrutiny. Spiked – a politics-based British Internet Magazine society and culture from a Libertarian standpoint conducted a Free Speech University Ranking study in 2016 which showed that 90 per cent of further education institutions are now censoring speech – in terms of events, essays, lecture content . Additionally, the study showed that over the past three years UK institutions have enacted 148 bans or actions against freedom of speech, with the vast majority of prohibitions being put in place via and by the Student Unions. An example of this political correctness and utter contradiction of fundamental human rights can be seen through the University of Leeds’ banning of The Sun anywhere on campus.
Tom Slater, coordinator of the Spiked study, promotes the idea that universities are supposed to act as spaces reserved for ‘unfettered debate and the pursuit of truth’, but the acceptability of censorship in such establishments is getting higher and unfortunately students are seen as too vulnerable and easily influenced by difficult ideas. Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, Louise Richardson, argues that controversial speakers at Universities are an integral part to a student’s university experience because they allow young, educated individuals to form vital opinions on the world around them by presenting them with a variety of differing opinions. Students need to be exposed to ideas that make them feel uncomfortable in order for them to think about what exactly it is that they fundamentally disagree with and why they object to certain ideas. Richardson feels that this is essential because it leads to the practice of framing a personal and informed response by using a reason to counter objectionable ideas.
The government has taken draconian measures to combat extremism, since the threat of terrorism remains a prevalent and dominating issue within British society. As of 21st September 2015, under Prevent, which is the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy, universities are required to conduct a risk assessment process for speakers to ensure those espousing extremist views do not go unchallenged. The government strategy also requires institutions to have appropriate IT policies, staff training and student welfare programs in place to recognise and respond to the signs of radicalisation. According to the Government’s Extremism Analysis Unit there were at least 70 events featuring hate speakers on university campuses in the past year. Ken MacDonald, a QC and former Director of Public Prosecution argues that this government strategy stifles contradicts the main principles of free speech and university research by arguing that it would be a grave mistake for universities to conspire against uncensored discussions, or to indulge a government that wants them to regulate, by banning speech on campus that isn’t otherwise remotely criminal.
Even though it could be argued that a certain level of censorship is required to prevent blatant and unjust hatred towards particular sectors of society universities are starving students of varying perspectives on fundamental and important aspects of life, purely because these topics are deemed slightly controversial. This ludicrous, petty political correctness needs to be stopped in order for students to truly express their opinion on meaningful debates that take place on campuses throughout the country. Radicalisation and the threat of terror is clearly a sensitive issue, which should be prevented when possible in universities, however, the approach taken by the government with the Prevent strategy is perhaps not the right solution when tackling this issue by leading to further isolation within the Islamic community within universities. Freedom of speech and openness urgently needs to be at the forefront of further education, as inclusivity and open-mindedness is an integral part of a university experience as well as in the formation of future generations into educated, well-informed adults.
Frederic Higgins 08/11/2016