Free speech is dead, and university newspapers have killed it

By Dominic Dixey

Free speech in universities is dead. We are so obsessed with coddling ourselves and our fellow students that it is stifling our ability to have a range of informed views that genuinely represent and are in touch with the views of most people in this country. This was most evident with the recent Brexit vote and the astonishing snobbery displayed in student campuses across the country. All universities seemed to be in a state of fear in the run up to the referendum, based on phoney fears of a loss of funding when we repatriate money that is rightfully ours. Students were piously declaring left, right, and centre that as educated people, their views were more informed and therefore more valuable than the locals down at the pub. Many of these students knew next to nothing about the EU and yet were perfectly happy to dismiss the views of people who have lived through decades of rule by the European Union, purely on the basis that they may not have spent 3 years of their lives pretending to learn about something, about which they care very little, with the intention of simply getting a job in finance and earning a shed load of money. I know who I’d rather chat with about Brexit.

Last year, Professor Thomas Scotto invited the Deputy Ambassador of Israel to the United Kingdom to speak at Exeter University’s Department of Government. His aim was to have “lots of disagreement: that the speaker would express his views and that the students would challenge him.” Plenty of students arrived armed with pages of notes, looking forward to their opportunity to grill such a figure on the great issues of the day. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Some sheltered, pitiful weasels stormed the event with tragic placards, shouting and heckling the speaker rudely so he couldn’t start. The university security didn’t feel they could ensure the safety of such a high profile speaker and so the event had to be cancelled. All because some selfish bigots couldn’t bear to hear someone speak who disagreed with them.

There are now a scary number of universities (albeit still a small minority) that are refusing to sell or provide students with copies of The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express and their Sunday editions. The logic was that these newspapers “aim at belittling and demonising certain groups in society.” Never mind the idea that these things should be openly debated, not shunned. Never mind the idea that no one is being forced to read a tabloid newspaper. Never mind the idea that most of the students condemning these papers have probably never read a single page of any them. Has it not occurred to them that taking such silly, arrogant and haughty views may be “belittling” and “demonising” to the roughly 4 million people in this country who read those papers? That’s about 25 times greater than the amount of the people who read The Guardian.

Regrettably, university newspapers also contribute to this culture. They censor articles to avoid confrontation and division. Offending someone is an absolute no-go and therefore you have to stick to the politically correct line. Those of us who believe in freedom of expression must fight this. Universities currently produce insular, sheltered people with lofty views that increasingly people in the real world despise. We must stop shielding ourselves away from things with which we disagree. University should be a place where free speech flourishes, and radical views clash all the time. That is how we learn- and isn’t that what we’re here to do? If a student newspaper can’t publish the views of its students, then bluntly, what’s the point in its existence? The culture here in Durham and universities across the country must change.

Photograph: Jon S (Flickr)

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