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28 February 2019updated 27 Jul 2021 6:53am

An illiberal tide is sweeping British universities and thwarting debate

Cherwell, Oxford’s independent student newspaper, recently refused to publish an online profile because it could “be considered offensive.” This is a dangerous path to take.

By Freddie Hayward

People often think universities are places where your views are challenged, refined, and improved. They are seen as places of debate and pluralism where beliefs are contested and scrutinised.

The majority of students enjoy engaging with opinions that are contrary to their own, but I believe the freedom to criticise ideas is being eroded. Amongst university students an intolerance of views that cause offence has begun to flower. This is not grounded in a dislike of inaccuracy or falsehood, but an intolerance of opinions that diverge from an acceptable consensus. What counts as an acceptable view seems to have narrowed to such an extent that even liberal views, based in fact, are deemed too offensive to be published.

Earlier this month I wrote an article profiling Armin Navabi. Navabi is the founder of Atheist Republic, an organisation that connects atheists across the globe. It promotes LGBTQ and women’s rights and fights the persecution of atheists. The article outlined his views and life story.

The piece was published in Cherwell, Oxford University’s independent student newspaper, but it will not be published online. The reason given was that the piece “may be considered offensive.”

It is with regret that I have resigned today as profile editor for Cherwell

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I believe that a diverse range of views should be tolerated. This article does not incite hatred or violence towards other people. It merely scrutinises ideas. This freedom to interrogate ideas underpins many of the freedoms we are fortunate enough to enjoy today.

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Cherwell’s decision not to upload the piece is symptomatic of a broader malaise. There is an atmosphere at Oxford, and at other universities, that an argument is not made valid by its logic, evidence, or reason. Rather, arguments are valid, and therefore worth hearing, if they conform to the current zeitgeist.

When Steve Bannon came to speak at Oxford in November, the protests were vast. Initially, I thought people were protesting his ideology and politics, but their intention was greater than that.

Many wanted to completely shut down any debate or engagement with his ideas. To that end, they aggressively prevented people from entering the talk. There were similar protests about a talk by the former Front National politician Marion Maréchal in January.

This is a dangerous path to take. The way to confront controversial views is not to ban or criminalise them, but rather to engage with and challenge them.

Navabi spoke about the danger of censoring views and the detrimental effect it would have on the left. I echo this belief. Critical issues must not be monopolised by those who don’t respect freedom of speech. It discredits these vital movements if some of their supporters censor reasoned opinions.

In the case of Navabi, he is not a far-right populist, but an influential liberal figure with a fascinating story. His comments on the Qur’an seem to have caused some controversy, but he has supported these with scriptural references. The views he expressed are not necessarily my views. This was not a comment piece but an interrogation of a controversial viewpoint and an attempt to present a perspective that would add to debate.

I strongly welcome disagreement with Navabi’s views and with the article itself – the article could have been improved with the addition of another voice. But that does not detract from the dangers of foreclosing debate. Debate is essential to any society and it is the role of journalism to facilitate and inform that debate.

I did not resign out of malice, vanity, or an elevated sense of self-importance. I resigned because I think there is a broader issue at stake. Students, especially student journalists, should be able to engage with views even if they differ from their own. And censoring opinions, liberal ones at that, is not the answer.

Freddie Hayward is an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford and former profile editor of student newspaper Cherwell.