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If universities censor, they can’t complain when the state censors them

21 April 2015

3:38 PM

21 April 2015

3:38 PM

I spoke at a Guardian debate on free speech before an audience of students at King’s College London last night. I’ve argued with racists and Putinists in my time and – to put it as mildly as I can – these little bastions of academia were up there with them in their contempt for basic freedoms.

Contempt is perhaps not quite the right word. Most simply did not understand what freedom was, and could not grasp the need for universal human rights. They could not see themselves as others saw them, or understand that by giving up on basic principles, because they are difficult to live with, they had left themselves naked before their enemies.

The students, and the academics on the platform, were outraged by the government’s plans to ban “non-violent” Islamist extremists from speaking on campuses. By non-violent, ministers mean men, who may preach all the reactionary prejudices about women, Jews, homosexuals, and apostates, but stop short of advocating terrorism.

I said they had every right to be angry. The only justification for censoring opinion is when it incites violence. You can use every other weapon a free country gives you to confront speakers you oppose. You can fact check them, mock and undermine them, expose their fallacies and overwhelm their defences. But you cannot ban them. Give up on that principle, and you lay yourself open to every variety of dictator and heresy hunter rigging debates and suppressing contrary opinions.

They seemed to like that. But where, I continued, might the state have got the idea that it was acceptable to ban speakers, who were not advocating violence. The question was so obvious it answered itself. To me, at any rate.

For years the National Union of Students blacklisted feminists because they had once said in frank language that trans-sexual women weren’t real women. In recent months, Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; officials at London Southbank took down an atheist society’s “flying spaghetti monster” poster because it might cause religious offence; the students union at UCL banned the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying “equality is a false God”; and Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Meanwhile half the campuses in Brtain have banned the Sun. You may be transsexual, God-bothering, pro-abortion, egalitarian, supporter of the Leveson inquiry. But you cannot pretend that any of these individuals, groups or images promoted violence.


Unless universities reformed they would be wide open to attack by the state, I told the audience. How could academics and students even keep a straight face when they told the Home Office it had no right to do what they were already doing?

I think it is fair to say that my speech did not go down well. In fact, the audience came close to revolt. When I said that universities should be physically safe spaces, but the notion that students should be kept safe from ideas or arguments defeated the whole purpose of higher education, one woman suggest I was advocating child abuse. When I said that their hypocrisy would be their downfall, they saw no reason why they should not persist in double standards. They were right and the government was wrong. They could ban, but  no one could ban them. That’s all there was to it.

Michael Harris, a colleague on the Guardian, made the brilliant point to me afterwards that tuition fees had made students consumers. They no more felt they had a duty to uphold freedom of speech when they disapproved of a speaker, than shoppers thought they had a duty to visit M&S if they shopped at Waitrose the week before. The customer was king and could do what he damn well wanted. I left thinking how too many left-wing academics were creating the ideal authoritarian types for the corporations, political parties and police forces of tomorrow. The abiding lesson of their supposedly liberal education was that they were entitled to suppress argument.

I wish I had known, but while I was speaking, Queen’s University in Belfast was making my point for me. You can find the full details on the Little Atoms website, which has quickly become essential reading for me. But in short, Queen’s was going to hold a symposium with the mild title of “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo” Jason Walsh, the Christian Science Monitor, had planned to argue that

Society today is lumbered with increasingly hollowed-out institutions and little commitment to the liberal, dare I say it Enlightenment, values that, despite their limitations, made us what we are, which is, I hope, increasingly tolerant of one another. Newspapers, even satirical ones filled with cartoons you may not like, are part of that.

He couldn’t. The Vice Chancellor at Queen’s – one Paul Johnston –  cancelled the discussion yesterday because he was “concerned about the security risk for delegates and about the reputation of the university.”

What to make of his cowardice?

The most obvious point is that senior academics now see suppression of debate as a means of protecting “the reputation of the university”. Freedom of thought and open argument, once the best reasons for having universities, are now threats which must be neutered.

Second, it is now not only difficult or impossible to satirise Islam because of fear of violence, it is becoming difficult or impossible in British universities to discuss the actual violence. Not only can you not show Charlie Hebdo cartoons, you cannot talk about the motives of the men who murdered the cartoonists. Third, although he cannot prove this, Walsh suspects that there was no real security risk, just the possibility that someone’s feelings would be hurt when he and others unequivocally condemned the murderers of cartoonists and Jews. The possibility that someone will or may hear an argument he or she does not like is now enough to justify censorship.

Finally, Queen’s has made the vice-chancellors and academics protesting against the Conservatives’ plans to ban Islamists look like perfect fools and utter hypocrites. If universities censor learned debates on Islamism, how can they possibly deny the state the right to censor Islamists?

I would have used the example of Queen’s and made all these arguments last night. But it would have done no good. Academia is lost in a self-satisfied stupor, and I doubt a single criticism I or anyone else made will wake it. Never has the security establishment been presented with such an easy target.

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