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29 June 2018

Censorship on campus? A new poll reveals what students really think about free speech

Who is really more offended – students or the general public?

By Billie Esplen

A quick search of the hashtag “snowflakes” on Twitter will reveal that the word has become a go-to for conservative commentators describing left-wing young people who dismiss arguments on the basis of personal offence. According to the narrative, snowflakes congregate on university campuses, where they seek to silence speakers they disagree with.

The government takes the risk of a blizzard seriously: in May, universities minister Sam Gyimah suggested that the Department for Education brought in a clearer set of free speech guidelines for higher education institutions. In explaining his reasons for the proposals, Gyimah referenced an incident in which students at Cardiff University signed a petition demanding Germaine Greer be disinvited from a guest lecture on the basis of “misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether” (Greer was in fact not disinvited by the university).

So it might be unsurprising that when YouGov announced a poll on students and free speech, one Twitter user simply responded:“Closed mind snowflakes.”

Yet the results of the survey suggested otherwise. When both a group of 1,004 students and a group of the general public – ie 1,636 British adults – were questioned on whether they would want to disinvite speakers with certain controversial views from their real or imagined universities, there was “no evidence that students are more likely than the general public to want to ban speakers whose views they find offensive”.

Interestingly, the question was posed to the non-student respondents as though they themselves were at university: “For the following question, please imagine that each of the following types of people had been invited to give a speech at your university. Do you think the speech should be allowed to go ahead or not?”

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The hypothetical speakers ranged from Holocaust deniers and those wanting to deport all migrants, to someone believing all religions should be banned.

The student sample did demonstrate a slightly higher inclination to disinvite a speaker for claims that vaccinations caused autism, that “transgender women are not ‘real’ women”, and that climate change is not caused by human actions. However, they showed absolutely no or negligible difference in offence caused by the remaining controversies, which, along with those mentioned above, included believing that terrorist attacks in Britain can be justified and that the Bible’s claim about God creating the universe in six days is literally true.

The general public were actually more likely to be offended by the notion that the royal family should be abolished, being 16 per cent more likely than the student group to want to ban a speaker voicing such sentiments.

As this suggests, whether or not people want to ban speakers is less determined by their proximity to a campus and more about their ideological position vs that of the speaker at hand.

When the responses of the student group alone are examined, the data shows a notable ideological disparity between those who voted Labour in the 2017 general election and those who voted Conservative.

Three-quarters of Labour-voting students thought that the speech by the Holocaust denier should be disallowed, vs just 59 per cent of those who voted Conservative. Only 29 per cent of Conservative student voters thought that the talk by the speaker wanting to deport foreign migrants should be disallowed, vs 62 per cent of student Labour voters. Both these positions, while hardly mainstream, are associated with the extremist end of the right. 

Roughly half of Conservative students thought the speaker who “believes transgender women are not ‘real’ women” should be allowed to speak, compared with a mere 28 per cent of student Labour voters. Again, while transgender debates exist on both the right and left of politics, the position outlined by this particular fictional speaker has been most vocally championed by the American right. 

Similarly 17 per cent of the Tory students thought the talk by the speaker who believes the monarchy should be abolished should be disallowed, vs just 9 per cent of the student Labour voters.

If these statistics show us anything, therefore, it is not that Conservatives or Labour voters are notably more liberal, but simply that the types of questions that are mostly likely to be debated are those that are deemed objectionable to young people on the left – which is a lot of young people.

These debates centre less around matters of free speech than they do about what exactly is being said. When it comes to what they believe in, this generation of students acts no differently to any other.

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