A Small Win For Free Speech on Campus
Those of you who are involved in student politics in Britain or America will undoubtedly be familiar with the term ‘no-platforming’. The policy itself is pretty self-explanatory. If a speaker is invited to a university by a society and the powers that be within that university decide that they don’t like that person’s political views, they will simply remove their invitation and quite literally no-platform them.
Now while I’ve no doubt that the people who support no-platforming and ‘safe spaces’ have good intentions, it seems to me that the culture perpetuated by these policies is completely antithetical to why universities exist in the first place. Often the speakers in question are controversial and so they are blocked from speaking on the basis that they may cause offense to a large portion of the student body. The problem there however is that a university is not designed to be a safe haven for one ideology. On the contrary, these institutions exist to house open debate and encourage students to think critically about their own beliefs and ideas. If we allow contentious figures to be barred from speaking at universities we completely undermine the founding principles of academia.
Private organisations can be as one sided as they please, but any university that receives state funding has a duty to facilitate the discussion of all ideas
As such, I was delighted to learn of the Government’s new plans to tackle free speech curbs on campuses. Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson announced on Boxing Day that as of April, the Office for Students will have the ability to fine universities that fail to uphold freedom of speech. Presumably this would mean that if an institution prevented a society from inviting a particular speaker on to their campus, they would face a loss in funding or an upfront fine from the state.
If I’m being perfectly honest, it seems unlikely that this will do a great deal in combatting the attack on freedom of speech in our universities, but it’s a step in the right direction. It is hard to imagine a case becoming so high profile that the government would actually step in, and in many instances, I can imagine the more committed student unions just going ahead and no-platforming speakers anyway and then taking the fine. None the less, these are public universities and so this new policy sets the right precedent for how our higher education system ought to be. Private organisations can be as one sided as they please, but any university that receives state funding has a duty to facilitate the discussion of all ideas. If they consistently fail to do this, perhaps the threat of state intervention will make them reconsider their practices.
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