Is free speech the answer, or are we all snowflakes?

For, by John Jones

Last weeks Friday night’s aggressive protests against Jacob Rees-Mogg represented an attack on free speech and, resultantly, heavily undermined the democratic fibre of Britain, and its universities. For such an event, which aimed to promote peaceful and measured debate, to descend into a violent fracas is troubling to witness in this day and age. We live in a time in which there are more platforms for self-expression and the wide dissemination of contrasting views than ever before, so why are many so determined to forfeit this privilege and suppress the opinions of those that we oppose?

It is important to state that my argument is not that we should mindlessly accept every view to which we are exposed. Critical thinking and holding others accountable are both crucial elements of a successful democratic system. However, there is a fine line between being critical of opposing beliefs, based on reasoned argument, and engaging in a damaging process in which the views of our opposition are immediately and unfairly delegitimised, without any sustained critical engagement.

Unfortunately, it was the latter approach that was adopted by the masked protesters that disrupted Mr Rees-Mogg’s speech. Whilst they claimed to be motivated by their opposition to the MP’s “homophobic and anti-abortion beliefs”, a legitimate grievance, they ultimately discredited their own cause, as they were exposed as being nothing more than thuggish noise-makers, who opted to sit at the back, spouting anti-Conservative rhetoric, rather than engaging in debate and discussing reasons for their objection. This was not constructive political opposition; this was aggressive heckling, which served to do nothing more than unfairly suppress alternative perspectives from being heard. Whilst I too do not condone these views of Rees-Mogg’s, his dignified response to the protestors was admirable, and showed that he was committed to the protection of freedom of speech, particularly in British universities.

In my view, freedom of speech should be a necessity within universities and, indeed, throughout the entire education system. As a Conservative student, I have, on occasion, found it intimidating to voice my political views, due to the intolerance that I often feel from my overwhelmingly left-wing peers. That is not to say that I don’t welcome opposition, of course I do, but I do not accept the suppression and rejection of my views purely on the basis of them being viewed as ‘nasty’ and not conforming with those of the liberal majority. Of course, it would be naïve to think that this does not work both ways; Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris’ investigation into how Brexit is being taught in universities was equally damaging to academic freedom.

Young people must be encouraged to make their own choices, and have their own ideas, and the classroom should be accommodating of this. Ultimately, it is critical engagement with contrasting beliefs and values that give democracy its strength and character. If we continue to silence others and promote a singular mode of thought on campus and beyond, then we are damaging the very democracy that we aim to protect.

Against, by Lewis Payne

University speakers and campus politics have been of increasing interest to the media in regards to free speech issues and with a particular focus on whether today’s students are ‘snowflakes’ or not; that is to say, if they are too sensitive to hear opposing views without throwing their toys out of the pram. This rose to the surface when Jacob Rees-Mogg was interrupted by protesters before a short fight broke out. Regardless of who started the scuffle, the scene was shared widely, and again free speech was discussed prominently in the news.

The right to protest is vital to any democratic society, and as such, action must be taken to protect it. This means that universities and its associated bodies should not be obliged to host speakers and for them to be entitled to a platform – especially those who have previously threatened or intimidated students in the past; and interrupting a talk should not be a crime. For example, one speaker had previously mocked a student for being transgender during a speech (with a picture of her on screen); making lewd sexual comments to audience laughs. This led to them being banned from a future event, with many arguing that the event should still go ahead on the basis of free speech. It is fair, however, for others to deny the capacity for this harassment in their students’ interest at future events; students with less power and backing than those of whom have been invited to speak. Whilst many would argue this is students hiding from the ‘real world’, I would argue that the real world consists of workplaces who do not tolerate harassment and abide by anti-discrimination legislation.

Theresa May has proposed a new law meaning those who are seen to intimidate political candidates are charged with a crime; likely intended to be a response against those who would disrupt speakers. In light of the 100-year anniversary of (some) women being given the power to vote, the Prime Minister noted in a speech the hostility that women faced when fighting for their rights, before arguing that it is unacceptable for anybody ‘to face threats and intimidation simply because she or he has dared to express a political opinion’. This sounds very agreeable on the surface. However, what is not mentioned is that the actions of the suffragettes would now be considered ‘shutting down free speech’, yet they were effective in creating the conditions that led to gaining voting rights, and are the exact same forms of dissent that proposed laws could do much to criminalise.

The unjust attention that is given to these scuffles in the media does little more than propagate an idea of an agitated, violent mob in the UK to the detriment of serious discussions about free speech; providing an excuse for legislation to be put in place that would see people face jail time for protest. Instead of criminalising dissent, we must consider the effects of giving platforms to such speakers who may use their platform to preach ideas which could lead to harassment or abuse itself.