With over two million starting or returning to student life in the weeks to come, now seems a fitting time to reaffirm what purpose higher education should serve in society. The costs and benefits of tuition fees to the economy have grabbed headlines, but at least we can all agree that a university should be a centre of academic excellence, a beacon of rigorous and far-reaching debate, a marketplace of ideas without curbs on free expression. Unfortunately, it appears not.
The sad truth is that most universities and students’ unions in the UK have established a culture of censorship to protect us from certain opinions that differ from our own in case heaven forbid, we may be offended by them. According to the ground-breaking research of the radical Spiked, 63% of British universities actively censor with a further 30% excessively regulating speech. As a free-speech liberal with a column titled Unsafe Space, I believe that the restriction of free expression at universities is a tragedy of our times.
What Spiked’s analysis also shows is that our own university is one of the most hostile to freedom of speech within the UK. Cardiff University itself has banned certain ideas on campus and the students’ union has implemented censorial policies including the banning of newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Star. How could it come to pass that you are unable to purchase two of the highest circulating papers in the country at a Russell Group university that should be an institution of political pluralism? Students with objections to certain media should not seek to ban them, they simply shouldn’t buy them. And how patronising it is to ban newspapers, pop songs or magazines as if students require protecting from their contents.
The censorship doesn’t end with the conservative press however, those who have on occasion been no-platformed include the activist Peter Tatchell. This came after Fran Cowling of the NUS refused to share a stage with him on the grounds that he is ‘transphobic’; evidently his fifty years of championing gay rights was insufficient. Another example is the tragic irony in comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show on the topic of free speech at Goldsmiths being cancelled because of her views on the sex industry. In my first months at Cardiff, there were considerable efforts made to get a lecture by the feminist writer Germaine Greer stopped because she apparently does not hold the correct views on transgender women. The list goes on.
The intellectual cowardice in kicking swathes of people out of the debate should be replaced by an eagerness to argue with those who we passionately disagree with. We have laws on hate speech and incitement to violence already in place to protect, and university bodies are setting an extremely dangerous precedent if they are to appoint themselves as judge and jury for what speech is permissible within the law. The establishment of policies that curb free speech renders the safe space a euphemism for a new form of tyranny that does no favours for students. One may look to South Park’s interpretation of this, ‘In My Safe Space’, where the only character to fear goes by the name of Reality.
In crushing certain voices that they do not agree with, the campus censors are not only denying liberty but are making a gross tactical error. One of my first memories of politics was watching the former British National Party leader Nick Griffin getting ridiculed on the panel of Question Time. The BBC allowed Griffin his platform, and this proved to be the most effective possible rebuttal to the abhorrent race politics that he represents. The same can be said of when Louis Theroux travelled America to meet crackpot neo-Nazis and the bigots at the Westboro Baptist Church. More recently, we have witnessed the coverage that Tim Farron and Jacob Rees-Mogg have received since having their socially conservative religious views challenged. Anti-choice positions on abortion and the view that homosexuality is sinful will undoubtedly cause offence, but in the marketplace of ideas such views will be exposed as what they are: prehistoric and morally redundant. We should seek to defeat inferior ideas rather than supress them and as attenders of a modern, diverse university we should be more than confident of defeating bigotry wherever it may arise.
Finally, I should make clear that I am not writing this piece to be deliberately provocative, nor to irritate anyone who holds a different opinion. Mine however is that I believe it to be high time for us to shake off the label of ‘Generation Snowflake’. Our universities and students’ unions have become places where nonconformists better self-censor or face the consequences of no-platforming. This trend on our campuses is intensifying and if we do not tackle it now, this plague of intolerance shall spread further in the years to come. Such attacks on classical liberal values threaten our ability to debate, achieve and progress; I think we should be able to do better.