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British universities have a duty to defend the ‘unsafe’ space

13 October 2015

3:13 PM

13 October 2015

3:13 PM

In the ever-noisier debate about campus censorship, one party has been noticeably silent: the universities themselves. Last week, the journalists Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos were forbidden to debate (on the topic of free speech) by Manchester Students’ Union. Manchester University made no comment. The week before that, Oxford’s SU banned from Freshers’ Fair copies of a student magazine designed to ‘publicise ideas people are afraid to express’; again, the university stood back. Nor did Warwick University intervene when the secularist Maryam Namazie, in the same week, was disinvited by Warwick SU. (After an outcry, they shamefacedly un-disinvited her.) Universities seem to assume that students should be left to sort out these kerfuffles by themselves. That assumption looks less and less realistic.

By appointing themselves as censors, student unions have blundered into territory which really belongs to the university authorities. After all, universities have a legal duty – enshrined in the Education (No 2) Act 1986 – to secure free expression on campus. There are certainly ample opportunities to fulfil that obligation; a good start would be to look at the University of Chicago, who in 2012 published a brief and eloquent Statement on Principles of Free Expression. The whole thing (available online) is worth reading, but these sentences are at the heart of it:

The University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.

I asked Geoffrey Stone, the law professor who composed the statement, whether there had been any challenges to free expression since 2012. Not yet, he says; but if and when they arise, ‘I have no doubt that the statement will be the starting point for any discussion of how the university should address them.’ Professor Stone adds that other institutions – including Princeton, Purdue and American University – have adopted the principles of the Chicago Statement.

British universities might consider following suit. Doing so, of course, would mean dispensing with the impossible dream that they could be ‘safe spaces’ – an ideal which nobody, in practice, believes. Free speech, like most worthwhile things, can do harm; but in terms of danger to students’ mental and physical health, it is nothing compared to many features of student life, such as alcohol, human relationships, and competitive exams. If you want to find an unsafe space at a university, try the bar or the hall of residence or the exam room. Universities permit and support all three because they judge that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. That is even truer of free speech.


Defenders of campus censorship often come up with quibbles: if a teacher tells a loudmouthed student to shut up, does that infringe their free speech? If I don’t invite Julie Bindel round for tea, does that make me a Stepford Student? Everyone, the censors say, has the right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to any platform they like. What all this overlooks is the unique status of the university – a place dedicated to the exchange of perspectives and the building-up of shared knowledge and understanding. If any place should err on the side of hearing out bad ideas, it is here.

The Chicago Statement touches on a great controversy in 1932, when a student society at the university invited the communist politician William Z. Foster to speak. The full story reminds you how little changes in the case for censorship. There were outraged demands for the event to be cancelled, led at the highest level by influential businessmen. One, Thomas Donnelley – an ancestor of those who say today that ‘the right to free speech is not the right to a platform’ – told university administrators that he didn’t mind Foster speaking; but ‘the students…should arrange for other places than university buildings or grounds for such meetings’. Foster advocated violent revolution, Donnelley went on: the university shouldn’t be giving his views credibility.

In a bold public response, Chicago’s President Robert M. Hutchins met the protesters head-on. Ideas, he said, should be challenged ‘through open discussion rather than through inhibition’. Another senior academic, Harold Swift, told an internal meeting that the university ‘stands for liberty, a search for truth and fairness’. High-sounding words, but they still resonate today, unlike the notion that communists should be banished from campuses. Having won that argument, Hutchins later stated his principles: ‘that free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, that without it they cease to be universities’. The real issue was not whether communism gained credibility, but whether the university lost it.

Free speech is in danger of becoming a kind of toxic brand, because it is rarely mentioned except when defending something distasteful. It begins to sound like every bully’s favourite slogan. But as Hutchins saw, free speech is part of ‘the good life’: it means honest conversation and the possibility of being changed by an encounter with another. George Orwell is always invoked for linking censorship with political terror. Less quoted are his remarks about what censorship does to the individual imagination. If any thought is outlawed, Orwell observed, the mind will pull back from deep thinking – because ‘there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought’. Original ideas depend on openness and dialogue; so does ordinary creativity.

A friend who went to university in the Soviet Union told me that among the authors who could only be read in secret, alongside Kafka and Orwell, was Rainer Maria Rilke. Why, I asked, would Rilke’s ethereal poems about unicorns, angels and fruit trees be thought remotely subversive? Because, she said, of how seriously they took the human spirit. The authorities grasped that literature which opened up possibilities of new life and thought was a threat. They knew that free speech exalts the capacity to re-imagine the world, to see differently.

British universities will never match Chinese ones for discipline or American ones for wealth and resources. Instead, they have been a success story because they foster creativity and independent thinking. Britain’s international clout is now a matter of cultural influence: earlier this year, we came top of Pearson’s international league table of ‘soft power’. Universities have played a huge part in that achievement. To carry on doing so and avoid deteriorating into degree-factories, they will need to cultivate a few more unsafe spaces. Nobody is obliged to visit them; but they are usually where the interesting stuff happens.


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