Protecting free speech: How will the new ‘Free Speech Tsar’ change up life in campus?

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As tension between either side of the political aisle continues to intensify and seep into all aspects of our lives, we once again see the topic of “freedom of speech” unearthed, its rotten corpse hung up for all the world to marvel at once again. This time its name is evoked by the appointment of Arif Ahmed, a former Cambridge philosophy professor, as the “university free speech tsar”.

A peculiar title created by the recent Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act which received royal assent earlier this year. Government ministers claim the new legislation aims to ensure fear does not undermine the rights of students and academics to debate controversial ideas within the university setting. Under the rule of Ahmed, fines can now be issued to universities and student unions found to be preventing this right through, for example, the ‘de-platforming’ of speakers. This clause specifically being a familiar occurrence for Durham, which has spent the last few years haunted by speakers such as Rod Liddle, a man famous for bravely taking up the ever-important role of any Christmas dinner, the elderly relative screaming about woke-ness, which of course Liddle did during the infamous South College 2021 Christmas formal. The incident resulted in a series of protests and ultimately led to Liddle being exiled from university events (until the Durham Union decided to invite him back less than a year later). In my opinion, the entire controversy provides an excellent example as to what we consider appropriate for debate and perhaps even a re-evaluation of what we mean by the term ‘Freedom of Speech’.

Amnesty International defines Freedom of Expression, an encompassing term including Freedom of Speech, as the right to say what you think, share information and demand a better world. The right is designed to protect an individual’s ability to criticise those in power; it goes without saying that this is fundamental to existing within a democratic society.

There should be no tolerance for intolerance

However, in recent years, the definition has instead been seemingly twisted. Now whenever we see an individual call upon this right, it is instead used almost as protection from accountability. In many cases, someone may claim it’s their right to criticise groups of people they disagree with (putting it gently) rather than an institution in control of society as originally intended. Although these two things are not mutually exclusive, it’s evident that the groups on the receiving end of this unfiltered speech are those possessing often discriminated characteristics. Calling back to my previous example, Liddle’s speech was undeniably targeted at the LGBT community, a group of people who have historically been violently excluded from positions of authority and control. Why should freedom of speech protect grossly misinformed rants of such nature as Liddle’s? Rants that provide no meaningful substance to justify a debate, that rather embolden bigoted individuals to feel confident in openly discussing harmful rhetoric.

This concern is nothing new within academia. As this year’s finalists are aware, the ethics of research are an essential aspect. We understand that the methods we use and thusly the results that we gather must be carefully considered to ensure no one, particularly those belonging to vulnerable groups, are harmed by what we put out to the world at large. With that in mind, why is it then that we relax such precautions when in the form of a passionate speech? It is clear that we acknowledge the consequences that come with controversial statements, seeing from humanity’s past mistakes that such things can fuel oppressive ideologies. I ultimately believe this campaign to protect free speech is nothing more than a thinly veiled cover for those whose views are now deemed unacceptable in modern society to thrash and whine, now that they must face the consequences of saying a slur on twitter. To therefore enforce the idea that we must happily sit by while speakers belittle and demonise ourselves and our fellow students, all in the name of hearing out both sides, is a fundamentally cruel and quite possibly dangerous policy. Do remember, there should be no tolerance for intolerance.

Image: Jeremy Brooks via Flickr

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