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Banning students from banning speakers is beyond stupid

3 May 2018

3:40 PM

3 May 2018

3:40 PM

So, the government has finally come up with a solution to the scourge of yellow-bellied censoriousness that has swept university campuses in recent years: it is going to ban it. Yes, it is going to ban banning. It is going to No Platform the No Platformers. It is going to force universities to be pro-free speech. Which is such a contradiction in terms it makes my head hurt. You cannot use authoritarianism to tackle authoritarianism. This is a really bad thinking.

The thinking comes from the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, a politician I normally have time for. Bright, young and absolutely right about the problem of campus censorship — he says it is ‘chilling’ that some students and academics think little about ‘stopping someone [from] expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular’ — Mr Gyimah will, I hope, go far. But his proposal, outlined today, to use government clout to get ‘tough’ on university banners strikes me as worse than useless.

Mr Gyimah says ‘tough guidance’ will be issued making it clear that universities and their staff and students will be prevented from censoring. That is, the government will use pressure to stop them from doing something they want to do in the name of freedom. Can people see the problem with this? The weirdness of it was summed up in the opening line of The Times’ report: ‘Students will be banned from refusing speakers a platform at their universities…’ If, like me, and like Mr Gyimah, you think campus banning is out of control, why would you propose more of it?

There is no question that intellectual cowardice and the instinct to censor are rampant at universities. In recent years, feminists have been No Platformed for suggesting men cannot become women, hard-right speakers have been blacklisted, critics of Islam have been threatened with censure, and everything from tabloid newspapers to saucy pop songs to certain forms of fancy dress have been banned by those Stepford Students who think giving offence is tantamount to physical violence. Mr Gyimah is right that there is ‘institutional hostility’ to daring or difficult ideas in universities.

But this problem will not be solved, and could be worsened, by government heavy-handedness. There are many problems with the government using authoritarian pressure to try to eliminate PC authoritarianism. The first is that it smacks of hypocrisy. Mr Gyimah is doing nothing to wind back Prevent, the shrill government policy that encourages teachers and academics to keep a beady eye out for ‘radical’ thinking, and which has led to both university and school students being questioned over beliefs judged to be too Islamist or too right-wing. Sorry, Mr Gyimah, but you cannot enforce Prevent in one breath and big-up free speech in the next.

The second problem is that this measure will flatter the Stepford Students’ belief that they are brave radicals fighting against The Man, when in truth they’re the blue-haired, nose-pierced heirs to Mary Whitehouse. This initiative is a dream come true for the intolerant enforcers of the ideology of the Safe Space since it allows them to dress up their illiberalism as radicalism.

And thirdly, it just won’t work. If a new generation and the academic elite have lost faith in freedom of speech, in this freedom that makes university life possible in the first place, then this points to a profound moral and intellectual crisis that will not be fixed by government advice. ‘Tough’ intervention from officials is not going to convince people, in their hearts and minds, that freedom of speech is the most important value in a civilised, democratic society.

Learned Hand, the wonderfully named pro-free speech American judge of the early 20th century, famously said: ‘Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.’ This is the problem we face today: liberty no longer lies in the hearts of many young people or of the liberal [sic] intelligentsia. They are now more likely to try to crush rather than confront ideas they don’t like. Their embrace of the cult of self-esteem and the misanthropic idea that ‘words wound’ means they increasingly see freedom of speech as dangerous rather than essential. Official enforcement of freedom is no substitute for belief in freedom; tough measures cannot take the place of encouraging a genuine love of liberty.

Anyone who wants to help tackle the march of intolerance on campus should not censure or punish banners, however irritating they might be, but rather should support warriors for free speech. They’re out there, setting up debating societies, inviting people they’re not meant to invite, thinking things their student-union betters have warned them not to think. We should back these freedom-lovers rather than banning freedom-haters.

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