Coffee House

The idea of a university as a free space rather than a safe space is vanishing

17 March 2016

5:00 PM

17 March 2016

5:00 PM

I’ve always admired the liberal Muslims in the Quilliam Foundation. It is hard to take accusations of betrayal from your own community. Harder still to keep fighting when the thought feeling keeps nagging away that out there, somewhere, there are Islamists who might do you real harm.

But Quilliam keeps fighting. To mark the launch by students of the Right2Debate campaign, which seeks to make universities live up to their principles and respect the right to speak and dispute, they have collected accounts from atheists and secularists of the wretched state of higher education.

I should pause to explain that last sentence to the confused.

You might have assumed that universities would be the last institutions in the country to censor. University is meant to be the place that blows away the cobwebs between your ears. Students are freed for the first time in their lives from the pressure to conform imposed by family and neighbourhood. They are yet to go into the workplace, where managerial hierarchies impose their own codes of silence. Lecturers and professors say they believe in academic freedom. The 1986 Education Act specifically obliges universities themselves to uphold freedom of speech under the law.

Yet all of the above counts for nought. I don’t know how you could measure intellectual deprivation. If you could, there’s a fair chance that universities would be among the most servile and conformist institutions in Britain.

The confused may also wonder about the targets of censorship. Atheists? Humanists? Surely the left believes in secularism and despises the superstitions that have held humanity back? Not so, and not for a long time. The speakers most likely to be prevented from enlightening students are speakers who uphold Enlightenment. They are targeted for the offence they cause, or ordered to stay silent. In the name of diversity, everyone must hold the same opinions, and remarkably reactionary opinions at that.

As Quilliam’s Haydar Zaki put it after he visited Exeter university with the cultured and liberal Muslim theologian Sheikh Usama Hassan:

Human rights speakers are branded as racists and vile, whilst speakers who advocate for FGM practices and theocratic rule are applauded as intellectual heroes.

In other words, and not for the first time in history, the far left is allied with the far right, and drags the soggy centre along whimpering behind it.

It is grimly fascinating watching often angry and occasionally baffled students come to terms with the obscurantism around them.


Daniel Porter said that at King’s College London said it was not just a few extremists policing thought, but the vast bulk of the student body. Everyone around him identified defence of free speech with endorsement of the speaker’s words. To say the holder of an unpopular or unpleasant opinion must be defeated in debate rather than banned was to share that opinion. and make you as tainted as the object of the communal scorn.

Porter tried to hold a debate of his own titled ‘Is the West responsible for Islamic extremism?’ A familiar enough topic that has been argued over thousands of times. But because he could not guarantee that the answer would be ‘Yes. It’s all the West’s fault’, it was attacked. He was accused of running a smear campaign against Muslims. The accusations grew so violent that participants said they no longer felt safe taking part. One stepped down after suffering from panic attacks.

Admire him though I do, Porter’s conclusion could not be more wrong.

The most unfortunate and depressing aspect of the US vs THEM narrative permeating through universities today, is that it fails to grasp the fact that most people actually have the same goal in mind: to create a world in which no one is discriminated against for who they are.

He may not realise it, but an uncrossable gulf separates the liberal from the inquisitor and the police officer. They do not share the same aims. They want to enforce their taboos and will pick on the smallest sign of heresy to do it. This is not a left v. right argument. It is barely even a philosophical argument. It is about people’s temperament. If you give the witch finders the power to denounce witches, they will do it, and use fear and the urge to conform to conscript the credulous and the frightened to the witch hunt.

In any case, the ‘left’ as I suppose I have to call it, is happy enough discriminating against those who fight discrimination.

Benjamin David and Damian Lewis from Warwick University talk about seeing

Feminists, gay-rights campaigners, anti-fascists and anti-Islamists being unpardonably indicted with ‘hate-incitement’ and subjected to disproportionate and unconscionable no-platforming sanctions, and sanctioned without sufficient evidence.

Reading them I understood that some struggles are eternal and every generation has to discover for itself the reason why freedom matters. In their own words, David and Lewis delivered a near perfect justification.

A society where one does not risk the beliefs they hold dear being questioned and challenged, where the values which pierce the depth of your very being cannot be offended, is one not worthy of the name for those who cherish the beautiful, powerful, and yes, dangerous nature of free thought.

An anonymous student from Leeds –  anonymous because it is dangerous to step out of line in the safe spaces – reformulated John Stuart Mill’s argument that only speech that provokes violence should be banned for the 21st century

The balance between protecting the right of students’ and academics’ freedom of speech and a safe space is never going to be an easy one to find, but I believe a fundamental line should be drawn at the incitement of violence and hatred. 

Just so. But few believe it. Haydar Zaki, Quilliam University Societies Outreach Office, described how University College London’s student union refused an application to establish a Quilliam society on campus. Liberal Islam was ‘irrelevant’ apparently – and this from a university with a Beyonce appreciation society. SOAS meanwhile banned the Egyptian feminist Mona El-Tahawy, and there have been repeated bans on Kurdish fighters and their comrades describing the war against that bastion of progressive and feminist values – Islamic State.

Last year, to cite the most notorious, University College London’s Kurdish Society organised a seminar to discuss the Kurdish militia and their fight against Islamic State. One of the invited speakers was ex-UCL student Macer Gifford, who fought with the Kurds in Syria. The student union decided to No Platform him, concerned that ‘in every conflict there are two sides, and at UCLU we want to avoid taking sides in conflicts’. Clearly they missed the irony in that statement, since UCLU routinely takes sides in their Union Policy, the most recent example condemning airstrikes in Syria, and in the past they’ve held votes on the situation in Gaza.

A student at Goldsmith reported it was just as bad there.

In the relatively short time since I established our atheist, secularist and humanist society, I have encountered a number of obstacles and flagrant attempts to suppress our right to freely express our views. From the outset, when I met to discuss the societies approval with the SU I was ‘encouraged’ to not do anything that might in the most minimal sense cause offence to any religious group. The SU officer, referencing the LSE Jesus and Mohammed cartoon row suggested not doing anything which might provoke similar hostility. 

It was Goldsmith’s of course that saw the infamous attempt by Islamists to shout down the ex-Muslim human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie, which became a national story. It is still worth dwelling on. A woman who has fled from theocracy and campaigns for the rights of women everywhere, is shouted down by a clerical mob whose supporters think it ‘progressive’.

I could go on, and indeed the report does go on. But the depressing picture should be clear by now.

As I said earlier, by far the greatest restrictions on free speech Western societies suffer come in the workplace. You could argue that the collapse of intellectual freedom in the universities does not matter, and is just used by the right to damn the worst of the left.

Perhaps it is, but it needs taking seriously for two reasons

The idea of a university as a free space rather than a safe space is vanishing. This is a profoundly conservative development. The only people I can imagine welcoming it is the type of hard-headed businessman who says the point of education is to train the young to work not argue.

Then there is the question of what will happen to all these barking martinets when they leave and join the establishment. Whatever poses they strike now, we will find that they fit in all too snugly.

As I have written before

The politicians, bureaucrats, chief police officers and corporate leaders of tomorrow are at universities which teach that free debate and persuasion by argument are ideas so dangerous they must be banned as a threat to health and safety. Unless we challenge them in the most robust manner imaginable, whatever kind of country they grow up to preside over is unlikely to be a free one.

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Show comments
  • nibs

    Cohen is a champion of free speech except when it concerns Israel.

    Then it’s law enforced “safe spaces” which are required, because, as we all know, Britain today is like 1930’s Germany.

  • Protinga


  • mikewaller

    If your blood does not boil as you read the above there is something wrong with you; however it is a little short on what should actually be done. I have long believed that absolute freedom of speech would be incredibly harmful. Not only do you have to consider Wendell Holmes (?) point about not having the right, maliciously, to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, I for one would find it wholly unacceptable to have, say, neo-Nazis given the right to say whatever they wanted in public spaces no matter how seriously they held their beliefs. It therefore seems to me that in the final recourse in settling conflicts between freedom of speech and the legitimate concerns and interests of others would have to be the law courts. On that basis, universities and similar institutions should be required to enshrine a suitably qualified freedom of expression clause within their charters with conflict resolution mechanisms established to resolve disputes. Where resolution proved impossible, court rulings would have to be sought and those failing to observe the findings should expect to find themselves sent down.

  • WTF

    Seeing that picture above got me thinking, LSE Political Sciences !

    Who ever dreamed up a course named Political Science as there’s precious little science in it other than the proven predictability they’ll be knuckle dragging progressive fascists attending PC indoctrination lessons. Where’s the science in that, I thought science was about things such as ‘space’ be it outer or inner space in the quest for greater knowledge not all about “safe space” for a bunch of wimps who constantly need their diapers changing !

  • Maureen Fisher

    Do these dopes actually do any studying?

  • Allyup

    A liberal Muslim – what a brilliant oxymoron!

    • Émile

      Muslim or Jew?

  • Harryagain

    A meeting of the brain dead.
    Can’t even spell.
    And these are supposed to be our intelligentsia?

  • Émile

    I had a dream. The fatherland of the chauvinists. All chauvinists of the world living in one place: me a French chauvinist, you, a Jewish chauvinist, she an Arab Sunni Muslim chauvinist, him an English chauvinist (aka Little Englander), etc, etc… Eh, nice dream? Yes, I know it’s just a beautiful dream.

  • Farages 16ucked Face

    1) If Nick Cohen was in favour of Free Speech he would debate his critics
    2) @UKIPBIackpool is a critic of Nick Cohen
    3) Nick Cohen refuses to debate @UKIPBIackpool

    Therefore Nick Cohen is not in favour of Free Speech

  • Mamata

    You deserve this. For years you overlooked the sufferings of non muslims in other nations. You lectured democracies in Asia to be tolerant towards minority muslims. Wait till nearly a fourth of your population is muslim. Only then will you learn about tolerance.

  • Itinerant

    “A woman who has fled from theocracy and campaigns for the rights of women
    everywhere, is shouted down by a clerical mob whose supporters think it
    The entire EUrabian project is turning Europe back towards the Middle Ages and calling it progress.
    Free speech and protest across Europe are being throttled, to accommodate this agenda.

    Anyone dissenting can expect vilification and possibly even a show-trial.

  • trobrianders

    Fascism rising out of the Left as it always has.

    • Sargon the bone crusher

      yep – socialism to national socialism in one jump. because the acolytes are a foul embittered bunch of scumbags.

      • red2black

        National Socialism was described by Oswald Spengler – German National Socialism.

  • SunnyD

    perhaps the Open University is the only truly “safe space” left for anyone right-minded and interested in furthering their education

    • Jethro Asquith

      Sorry, but even that institution is lost. I received their latest alumni newsletter and it was absolutely chock full of left-wing tripe.