This article is more than 3 years old

There is a debate about free speech on campus. Just not the one you think.

Three student leaders evaluate the way in which students and their representatives are portrayed over the free speech debate.
This article is more than 3 years old

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is the vice president for higher education at NUS.

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Meg Price is a Policy Manager in the Education Practice at Public First

In his commemoration oration to King’s College London recently, the Chair of the Office for Students, Michael Barber, said that there is extensive debate these days about freedom of speech.

“On the one side”, he said, “those who argue that more should be done to prevent the no-platforming of controversial speakers”. On the other – “those who say this is all much exaggerated and just another front in the culture wars”.

He is right to say that there have been a lot of voices calling for something to be done about no platforming, trigger warnings, student snowflakes and “woke safetyism”. Barely a week goes by without students and their unions having this criticism levelled at them in the press.

But Michael Barber is plain wrong when he says that one side of this debate thinks there is a problem with free speech on campus, and one side thinks there isn’t. We all think there’s a problem. We’re just not all agreed on its nature.

Safe spaces

Take the endless commentary that derides and demeans students’ union “safe space” policies.

Most student organisations on campus operate democratic meetings and forums of one sort or another. In an age of declining democratic participation, they afford students the opportunity to obtain important experience of debate and discussion with others.

But several studies in the middle of the last decade found that these meetings were hard to access for some students – and not reflective of an increasingly diverse student body.

So our predecessors wrote policies aimed at creating an open, welcoming and safe environment that students felt able to participate in. They generally set out the standards of conduct that might be expected during those meetings. They create an environment of basic respect for others – precisely so that more students, with more diverse views and backgrounds, can engage in often deeply challenging, uncomfortable debate.

As the student body gets more diverse, it’s these actions that help us to build a more healthy democratic culture. You’ll see that in coming weeks as students’ union elections unfold on campus, where students will use what for many will be their first taste of democracy to debate the complex issues of the day and how they would like those issues handled.

It’s children who are wrong

That’s the big problem with Michael Barber and others’ characterisation of us and the endless, circular debates on freedom of speech. They don’t even try to understand. They simplify and caricature in a way that belittles us – when we are becoming ever more sophisticated at handling the complexities of freedom of speech in the modern age.

Just ask any woman that’s a student leader on the internet, and tell us that simplistic, unfettered “free speech” is an unalloyed good thing. Has social media opened up unprecedented access to debate and ideas? Yes it has. Does it bring with it misogyny, bullying and trolling that drives women out of online spaces altogether? Yes it does.

For every policy maker that intends to secure free speech through the removal of restrictions, there are others that passionately believe we secure it by sensibly regulating each other’s behaviour, precisely so that controversial ideas and speakers can be aired.

In the real world contemporary free speech requires subtlety, sophisticated and considered decision making, and detailed engagement with the people on all sides that feel restricted. Instead the free speech debate is characterised by broad brush simplicity and magic wand waving that makes it harder, not easier, to encourage students into debates and political activity.

In truth, we don’t know a single student leader in the country opposed in principle to freedom of speech. Everyone has the right to free speech within the law, and universities and their students’ unions should always work to widen debate and challenge, never to narrow it.

We all aim for the maximum level of political diversity to exist and be expressed by students on campus, and believe that freedom of expression includes the right to “offend, shock or disturb” – we just don’t think it should be abused for the purpose of unchallenged hatred or bigotry.

Of course university should be a place where students’ views are developed and challenged. But should an engineering student going about their day have to face a barrage of abuse about their sexuality in the name of free speech? No, they shouldn’t.

And anyway – there is another more important problem that we wish the higher education sector would address.

The real free speech problem

In the call for evidence in the work we have led on this issue, it quickly became clear that much of the controversy surrounding political diversity, freedom of speech and external speakers is concentrated on a handful of the country’s most elite universities.

And that’s because almost all of the external speakers that visit students’ unions and their societies are booked to appear at the country’s most elite universities. In our survey of students’ union society events during 2019/20, we found that 71% of all external speaker bookings were taking place at Russell Group universities.

As such, it is clear that not all students have access to the breadth or depth of political engagement and exposure to debate, external speakers or controversial ideas as others. And that is an important free speech problem in and of itself.

Put simply, why are philosophy students at Exeter treated to a roster of guest speakers and challenging debate when nursing students at Worcester are not?

So we’d like to see a new focus – where universities, sector agencies and the government work together with students’ unions, guilds and associations in all types of university to attract speakers, put on events, generate debate and expose students to new ideas, thinking, policy and people.

Collaborations over events and initiatives like this would do a lot to create the kind of “diverse, challenging, mind-opening, demanding and sometimes destabilising” culture on campus that Michael Barber craves.

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