Somehow somewhere along the road society seems to have reached a conclusion that our student population needs to be guarded from views too far off the centre ground. That it would be unsafe to let them think for themselves. That these kids would all somehow give in to this dangerous and controversial sharing of opinions. Shunning debate and controversy under the out-of-hand no platform policy as well as threatening the academic freedom with the new counter-terror bill is more than harmful to the ideal of the university as a platform of ideas and discussion.

As the House of Lords takes on its third reading of the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, more than 500 university professors have announced their concerns over the consequences that the legislation might have on the freedom of expression in British universities. The letter sent to the Guardian expresses the scholars’ worries over part five of the bill, which puts universities in a position where preventing extremism comes before free speech. But tackling ‘students being drawn into terrorism’ by ending open discussion is about as useful as teaching SRE by changing the subject when someone asks a question. Challenging and arguing should be integral parts of the public arena – and especially over controversial, sometimes even radical, thoughts. Nothing is scarier than trying to constrain information in order to breed sheltered individuals that fit the already set moulds.

Unfortunately, the deteriorating state of free debate is also driven from within the academic field. The belief that if something isn’t seen it doesn’t exist appears to be the prevailing myth across the agora. The recently published Free Speech University Rankings by Spiked shows four-fifths of the universities of the UK to have limited or censored free expression. This is unacceptable. The efforts to silence possible conflicts of opinion and offence in universities range from the University of Birmingham prohibiting sombreros as racist to UCL banning Nietzsche society and Oxford pro-life advertising. Recently, comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s gig – focusing on free speech of all topics – was cancelled due to a student union ‘safe space’ policy. This was due to a possible picketing of the event by those disagreeing with the comedian. Expressing views by protesting is a completely valid and right thing to do, but for the group providing the platform to yield that way is just sad. The boundaries of ‘safe space’ should not be stretched to cover emotional safety alongside physical security.

Together with the safe space policy, the National Union of Students has also another guideline that puts pressure on those who disagree: the No Platform Policy. The illiberalism of NUS, and the student unions of universities, has grown much larger than it was initially meant to. Originally intended to limit the platform given to those perceived as racist or fascists, the policy has now reached such measures that speakers can be denied a platform on the basis that they do not meet the standards of political correctness. George Galloway was banned by the NUS for incredibly stupid comments on Julian Assange’s rape accusations. Distasteful and disturbing? Yes. Worthy of a full-on boycott by a nationwide organisation without questions? I doubt. With means such as these we are promoting a society that does not rely on discussion and debate over its problems, but on restrictions and censorship that aim for cotton wool wrappings on everything indecent or crude – characteristics made in the image of those who happen to wield the power to prohibit and regulate.

Racism, homophobic slurs, and misogynistic bigotry are all to be condemned in a civilised society, but what about a song, a magazine, or a debate about fracking? Bad taste and controversy are not sufficient reasons to ban something just because it might potentially upset or offend someone. The ‘no platform policy’ was meant for tackling racism and incitement to ethnic hatred, and it should stay that way. We cannot allow everything that does not fit a certain form to be labelled as ‘hate speech’. Ill-advised comments should not be put on the same level with processed anti-Muslim attitudes, nor should all pro-Israel arguments be considered Zionism for instance. This should be understood before banning everything that is not PC just in case.

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