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17 November 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:33pm

I fought for free speech on campus – but I don’t agree with Tory plans to safeguard it

The plans are extremely ill-thought through.

By Tom Bennett

One year ago my students’ union voted to ban the Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Express from campus. Its reasoning was that these papers “have a tendency to fuel fascism, racial tension and hatred in society”.

Although there’s some truth in that assessment, the answer shouldn’t be to ban them. Together, they make up over half of the nation’s daily newspaper readership. I and hundreds of other City University students opposed the ban, and eventually got it overturned.

In the following months, there were several other highly-publicised cases of campus censorship. The University of Strathclyde’s union banned students from forming an anti-abortion group. Sussex’s union tried to force speakers to submit speeches in advance. And, in the US, white nationalists rioted on university campuses in the name of freedom of expression. 

Now, the government has responded by setting out plans to “protect” free speech at universities. The proposals, announced in October by universities minister Jo Johnson, will give the newly formed Office for Students the power to fine, suspend or deregister universities if they fail to guarantee free speech on campus.

The motive behind these plans is righteous. Free speech is an essential part of any democratic institution – especially a university. By hearing opinions we don’t agree with, we allow our thoughts to be scrutinised, debated, shaped and improved.

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But the plans themselves are extremely ill-thought through. They are based on the idea – created by a sensationalist press – that censorship is rife in universities. Despite what the cases above may suggest, this simply isn’t true. These are just the cases that are reported on.

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“No-platforming” – refusing a platform to speakers who are likely to incite hatred or violence – “safe spaces” for marginalised groups, and “trigger warnings” about sensitive material have been used in universities for decades.

They’re most commonly employed in support of minority groups who face significant societal disadvantages. Allowing their voices to be heard actually helps to promote freedom of expression.

It’s easy to disregard this as special treatment that stifles debate and shields students from the real world. But we live in a society that simply isn’t equal. The answer to changing that isn’t to carry on, hoping that equal rules will eventually lead to equality. The ideology is deeply ingrained – it needs to also be countered somehow. When enacted properly, these policies operate in a similar way to employment schemes aimed solely at BME graduates or targets to give more women top jobs.

Their benefits are clear, but it is the few occasions on which they’ve been abused that have made them the target of these new proposals. The reality of this debate is that the impact of no platforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings on free speech varies case by case. And that is exactly why a clunky piece of government legislation will be unable to make a positive difference. As we demonstrated last year, the best-placed people to protect free speech on campus are the students themselves.

It’s obvious that the Tories’ wider aim with these plans is to appease their faithful and the right-wing press – those who so relish labelling mine as “the snowflake generation”. It just seems odd that, given the events of the past two years, they would treat us with such patronising disdain. Did they see their performance with young people at the last election?