This guest blog is written by current students Jack Philipsborn (Land Economy 2014) and Conor Monighan (English 2014) in collaboration with Bye-Fellow Dr Matt Neal (History 2003). The debate ‘This house believes the perceived threat to campus free speech has been exaggerated’ was held at Fitzwilliam on 26 January.
Free speech is why universities thrive; cross-pollination of ideas happens when people can interact freely. So when the idea gains traction that campus free speech is under threat, alarm bells everywhere should surely start ringing. And what if the expected ringing is oddly subdued? It may be perhaps because the threat seems be coming not from government, but from students themselves. Recent student initiatives such as ‘no platforming’ (for example the high-profile no-platforming of Germaine Greer at Cardiff University), ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ provide the context for this important debate.
The debate began with the proposition arguing that a true threat to free speech would require an individual to face the fear of death, and therefore no threat to campus free speech can possibly exist. The proposition then argued that controversial speakers could speak elsewhere should they be denied access to a particular platform. Their central point was that the student-led initiatives mentioned were all critical for student welfare and must trump any trivial perceived threats to free speech.
The opposition were quick to point out that no-platforming is not only a threat to free speech, but is also counterproductive. They urged that controversial people should be allowed to speak in order that we might challenge views that are offensive or upsetting. Withholding platforms merely maximises publicity for bad ideas, and as there is often only one aspect of a speaker’s beliefs that might offend, the blanket denial of speech prevents the speaker from being heard on other issues.
The proposition then raised a point of information, asking whether this principle still applies to speakers who incite hatred. The opposition responded by arguing that government anti-hate and defamation laws are in place to prevent this already. On safe spaces, the opposition argued that safe spaces are not ‘safe’, and are rather an attempt to exclude as many people as possible from often-reasonable dialogue.
Throughout the debate there was a deep-seated sense of irony that it was students rather than government who were responsible for the perceived threat to free speech. Perhaps this why the issue has only just become apparent: government clampdowns on university free speech are widely reported, but it is commonly assumed that students know what is good for them.
In fact, this issue lay at the heart of the winning questions from the floor. Grayson Elorreaga noted that some students might choose to limit free speech in order to create a position of wilful ignorance for themselves. Chinedu Ugwu drew a distinction between the situation in the UK and his home country, Nigeria, where university authorities had only recently granted students the right to form a student union. When so many students in authoritarian states from China to Saudi Arabia are forcibly silenced, the perceived threat in the UK might be seen as exaggerated.
Nevertheless should we allow no-platforming and safe spaces to gain momentum, we might wake up to a university not dissimilar to those in authoritarian regimes. The slippery slope argument is too often used, but well-intentioned initiatives such as those described tend to become the basis for intolerance. Additionally, should students fail to be concerned by the curtailing of university free speech, there might be a greater government willingness to intervene – indeed arguably this has already been seen in the form of the enhanced discretionary powers created by the ‘Prevent Programme’.
The opposition won the debate with 23 votes to 8. Many thanks to Kirill Lasis, Harry Stovin-Bradford, Sourav Roy, Matthew Kellett, Sarah Collins and Carlo Lori for participating. Congratulations to our winning speakers Sarah Collins and Sourav Roy.
We would like to thank the Master, who chaired the debate, and Dr Iacovou and Mr Middleton for judging. In addition, we would like to honour Lester Brewster who enables this debate to take place each year. He matriculated at Fitzwilliam House in 1948 reading history, and was a founder director of the Fitzwilliam Society Trust Ltd in 1974 (having been President of the Society in 1972-3). He died on 21t March 1996, and the Brewster debate is just one part of the legacy he left the College.
Anyone interested in attending other events hosted by the Fitzwilliam College Debating Society is welcome to visit www.fitzdebating.com.