We must defend free speech on our campuses

I’ve been getting more and more concerned as of late with the amount I’m hearing about a progressively more illiberal student experience throughout the country. From speakers being no-platformed by the National Union of Students and subsequent campuses, to religious tensions in political societies at Oxford University – our education system has gone drastically wrong.

We’re now in a situation where, when it comes to an evolving free exchange of ideas, we are quickly regressing. It’s seemingly no longer a person’s right to speak their mind, but they have to conform to set parameters of what it is okay and not okay to believe, or risk falling foul of breaching somebody’s safe space bubble and be shown up whilst their more illiberal peers empanel themselves as a grand jury.

And of course though I recognise safe space policy as being perfectly valid (I’ve written a few in my time), they are to protect individuals from genuinely harmful situations – not protect them from the inextricable horror of having to hear somebody disagree with them. It’s nimbyism of the highest degree – and it raises the question of how we’re equipping young people in college and university today for the outside world.

Universities and the like are environments where we’re meant to be challenged with different beliefs, creeds, and opinions. We’re meant to be aware of alternatives and then make an informed decision on what our own point of view is. That’s part of becoming a member of society. In any other environment – such as the workplace – if you have an idea you expect it to be challenged, and by justifying your arguments logically and clearly you then gain more confidence in your own opinions being valid.

If discussion is just shut down at the start, you don’t get that at all. And so after 3-4 years of intensive education, young people come out into the real world with no idea of what to do when someone says they disagree with their opinion. As liberals, we should view this as nothing less than a fundamental failure of our education system to prepare young people to be citizens. But that’s not the only problem with this.

When NUS, or some other organisation, unilaterally declares that someone is, say, a racist – it’s clearly meant to just be accepted as universal truth. There is no chance for the accused to reply – in fact great effort is expended into ensuring they never speak to students on campus again. And this is the most insidious part of it all – the ability of one organisation to shut young people off from the world, and impose on them an opinion. “He’s a racist”, NUS says, “Now everyone should think this. No need for a debate.”

A most recent and ludicrous example is veteran LGBT rights champion Peter Tatchell being branded homophobic by an NUS officer and cast unilaterally back into the darkness from whence he came. It may just be my liberal soul, but when as a society we start telling people what it is okay and not okay to think, and feel, and believe – it starts to get eerily McCarthyist. Soon we may be hearing “Are you or have you ever been in disagreement with NUS?”

I’m reminded of John Stuart Mill (unsurprisingly). He wrote “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. This is the true liberal ideal – that any person, regardless of how bonkers their opinion may be, should be given a chance to air it.

Is there any doubt in our minds that if somebody stood up in a classroom and said something contentious that it would be challenged? Of course there isn’t. The fear of NUS and others of course is that they may say something people would agree with. To borrow from Mill again, they have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging.

Liberalism, no matter whether Social or Classical, holds Liberty as the key value. We have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to ensure that they are given the liberty to engage with many different ideas and opinions, to shape their own viewpoint, and to question things rather than just accept. We need to be encouraging them to defend their visions, so that they can stand up in the outside world and do just the same thing. We need to make them strong, but still provide for them and protect them if they’re in need.

Let us speak loud on our campuses, in our school halls, in our communities. Let us never accept that young people are too fragile or too ill-equipped to hear dissenting voices. Let us use Liberty to empower our young people to take on the world. And finally, let us advocate for free speech, for tolerance, and for informed, free debates that will define our generation.


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