The fiery debate over the limitations of free speech reached a boiling point a few months ago when Government announced new legislation that would allow it to regulate universities’ conservation of free speech. During a speech in December, Universities Minister Jo Johnson responded to the rise of ‘countervailing forces of censorship’ in universities across the United States and the UK.
‘Our universities … should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged and prejudices exposed’, he said.
Therefore, beginning this month, the Government’s newly-established Office for Students (OfS) will have the power to fine, and even suspend, universities that fail to ensure the protection of free speech. Specifically, the OfS will target ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe space’ policies; measures adopted by many schools and student unions to prevent individuals or groups with hateful and extremist views from publicizing offensive speech. The universities minister argued that such policies stifle civil debate among students with conflicting opinion.
‘Shield young people from controversial opinions, views that challenge their most profoundly held beliefs or simply make them uncomfortable, and you are on the slippery slope that ends up with a society less able to make scientific breakthroughs, to be innovative and to resist injustice’, he said.
Johnson certainly makes a fair point about the value of public discourse. Especially for us students, it’s important to expose ourselves to opinions that conflict with our own in order to open our eyes to new perspectives, as well as learn how to defend our own. If we never engage with the opposition, we run the risk of living in an echo chamber, surrounding ourselves with ideas that only confirm our own beliefs rather than challenge them.
However, withholding a microphone from an outspoken Nazi is not threatening free speech. With the recent rise of far-right extremist groups in the mainstream media, it’s crucial to recognize that there is a stark difference between controversial points of view and bigotry. As essential as civil discourse is to democracy, that does not mean we have to condone odious ideology; giving blatant intolerance a platform does not encourage intellectual, productive debate, it only incites senseless violence and discrimination. We should not legitimize such baseless intolerance, because there is no excuse for expelling unjustified hate.
That being said, ‘no platforming’ does not mean it is okay to use violence in order to shut down harmful speech. In universities both in the UK and the United States, there have been a growing number of instances in which violence has broken out during student protests against controversial speakers and groups. Of course, this violence is not one-sided; in some cases, these protests did not turn violent until authorities began unjustly attacking defenceless students. However, there are also examples of when students have incited fighting, using unnecessary force to shut down potentially offensive speech. And unfortunately, these tactics are more counterproductive than beneficial, as they only further estrange opposing viewpoints. Although there are times when we should ‘no platform’ neo-fascism, that does not make it okay to use extreme methods that antagonize and lead to chaotic fighting.
But in the end, ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ are not the issue than the UK Government should be addressing. Penalizing institutions that do support these acts of free speech and protest is ultimately counterproductive, and will result in more backlash than support from universities and students alike. Instead, higher education needs to direct its focus on encouraging civil debate between students. Rather than limiting free speech, the OfS should be looking to channel students’ energy towards participation in political debate in order to fuel more open discussion between opposing viewpoints. Students need to learn how to engage with opinions that differ from their own, but without the resources or outlet to do so, they turn to blind, unproductive argument.