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Free speech in University

Free speech in universities is getting a battering. In my home country (the UK), in Canada, and in America, a mixture of trigger warnings, university and student union restrictions, and government fears about a few loonies is limiting free expression. Trigger warnings are fair enough, warning somebody that what they are about to hear or see is potentially distressing is no real hardship on anyone. But limits to free speech on both sides of the Atlantic to stop idiots from spouting daft and dangerous views are a lot more worrying and insidious. Government attempts to rein in expression on university campuses are dumb politics, too.

The 2014 Campus Freedom index, a report by The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, noted that out of 208 grades awarded to 52 Canadian campuses, 24 campuses had censored student expression on campus, failing to protect free expression rights. 33 ‘F’ grades, meaning that free expression had been censored, were handed out to 14 universities and 19 student unions. However, only 5 ‘A’ grades, which mean that unions or universities are committed and have committed to free expression, were handed out. Trent’s Central Student Association was ranked as one of the ten worst.

The index noted among its worst cases Trent’s denial of a ‘free speech wall event’ to Trent Liberty, and University of Regina’s request that two individuals be arrested and removed from campus for ‘peacefully expressing unpopular views’.

In the UK, there is a similar trend. Speakers like feminist Julie Bindel, and politician George Galloway have been banned. Lancaster University student union president Laura Clayson was warned by the police for having posters calling for the bombing of Gaza to stop, and to halt fracking in the local area.

In Canada and the UK, governments are putting pressure on free expression on university campuses, to reduce the proliferation of ‘extremist views.’ In the same way that governments want to stop inflammatory opinions, universities and unions are limiting views which may offend. People with dangerous or offensive views cannot say stuff, and the potential for upset is being reduced. So why is this so bad?

‘For centuries before the early modern era,’ writes Peter Frankopan, “the intellectual centres of the world… were not located in Europe or the West, but in Baghdad and Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand.” In what we now call the Middle East, these places lined the Silk Roads, the great trading routes which linked the Roman and Chinese empires. As Frankopan notes, these cities and cultures quickly progressed, at this time more advanced than the West, because “as they traded and exchanged ideas, they learned and borrowed from each other, stimulating further advances.”

The lessons learned on the Silk Roads are arguably the foundations of our civilisation. The exchange of ideas and inevitable debate helped to advance disciplines ranging from microeconomics and philosophy, to science and religion. These are the same lessons that university looks to foster.

This is why the university and student union element of repression is concerning. Exposure to discomforting or foreign opinions is vital to the development of critical minds and sound theories. It allows us to strengthen and round off our correct views, so that they are always relevant and don’t become what John Stuart Mill called ‘dead dogmas.’ Alternatively, repressing speech can allow foundation-less garbage to go unchallenged, so incorrect views can gain merit that they do not deserve. This is more dangerous than allowing them to be freely expressed, as in this instance they can be openly challenged and shown as wrong. Prohibited views can become martyrs, gaining a following in suppressed networks.

Besides teaching specific content, universities nurture active, critical minds for life after university, by cultivating an environment in which students, and staff, can freely and safely engage with difficult topics. The essence of university life is founded in experiences like those on the Silk Roads, and in failing to expose students to discomforting opinions, universities fail to do their job properly. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt recently asked in The Atlantic, “what are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection?”

UK Home Secretary Theresa May has called on universities to restrict some debate and monitor potentially extremist views, but what does ‘extremist’ even mean? It is extreme to repress somebody just for saying something.

Academia also performs an important democratic function. Governments keep society in check through laws, and monitoring our behaviour. Likewise, free expression of the press, the people and academia, is a crucial check on government action. If students and academics feel they cannot speak freely, an important part of our democracy is in danger.

In 2013, writing for New Statesman about What Makes us Human?, BBC Economics Editors Robert Peston wrote:

life is dull and poor for those with limited knowledge and a narrow outlook. There are fewer opportunities to create wealth – material and spiritual – in the absence of challenging conversations. It is other people who help us both to see more of the world as it is, and to understand more about ourselves.”

It is vital that universities guarantee free expression and that governments don’t impede this. Otherwise, universities will be nothing more than finishing schools, rather than the crucible of knowledge and wisdom in which we are so lucky to learn. Life is too short to be offended, and there will always be another conversation to learn from.

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