Recently, spiked magazine changed Durham University’s free speech rating from amber to red, according to their Free Speech University Rankings system. This means that Durham is now considered by the campaigners as an institution that is hostile to free speech and freedom of expression. An article published in The Independent described in depth the curtailment of free expression in nine out of ten British universities, citing the banning of controversial speakers on campus and the withdrawal of red-top newspapers for sale on university premises. Worryingly, the censorships are four times more likely to be imposed by student unions than by the universities themselves. Unlike some despotic regime where oppressive censorship policies gag the voices of dissent, we are not having our rights to say and hear taken violently away from us. We’re giving them away for free.
The freedom to speak and be heard, to challenge the ideologies of yourself and others, to be exposed to different opinions and to have opinions of your own; this is what free speech is. It is the very lifeblood of a liberal, civilised society and it should be to the abject horror of anyone who values such a community that it is under threat now more than ever. If there is one place where freedom of speech should abound, with beliefs regularly challenged, it is in the institutions of learning where ideas of every kind are subject to criticism, evaluation and discussion by the leaders of tomorrow. The fact that these are the very where the exact opposite is happening is not just an offence to their existence, it is downright dangerous. I normally hate to invoke the slippery slope argument, but in this case, it is valid. It is completely illogical and unrealistic to expect that silencing of speakers, banning of newspapers, policing of language and enforcing dress codes stop where they currently are. Maybe the Koran will be the next to be banned if some people perceive it to be misogynistic.
This was the justification for the banning of The Sun on some university campuses. This is the problem with limiting the right to free speech with the intention of protecting others from offence or discomfort. Where do you draw the line? And who gets to draw it? Perhaps these questions should be put to the vote? But then the vote might not go the way you want it, and then what? Do we keep having votes until everybody is so divided we have a world full of tiny little echo chambers, where nobody discusses anything with anybody, except people they are sure will agree with them? No. Everybody draws their own line and decides for themselves what is acceptable and what is not, and if they feel their line has been crossed, they engage, debate and challenge the people that crossed it. That is what an education is, and that is why a university is the best place to get one. Or at least it should be. If you prevent ideas from being heard in the broad light of day, you do not banish them completely. Instead, they are driven underground where the lack of sunlight allows them to grow septic and poisonous. Eventually, they become a monster strong enough to once again break the surface and before you know it you have a certain Mr Donald J. Trump leading the free world. It’s a horrible cliché but it would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge the countless people who died face-down in the mud fighting for these rights, and they are not up for debate.
Or are they? Maybe you think differently. Did I miss something? What have I not considered? It’s your right to disagree and tell me why I’m wrong. I’m open to all ideas.
Photograph: Harshahars via Creative Commons