It’s clear that our universities have a problem with free speech. We’ve recently witnessed students at the University of Oxford not only protesting Steve Bannon’s appearance at Oxford Union, but attempting to prevent others from even attending the talk. Only last week, Peter Hitchens had a talk he was due to give cancelled at the University of Portsmouth because the university felt that this would not chime with the students’ union’s LGBT+ month. I’ve also fallen foul of this tendency towards censorship on campus: when I shared a Spectator article in November asking ‘Is it a crime to say women don’t have penises?’, I lost my position as president-elect of humanist students as well as my role as assistant editor of Durham University’s philosophy society’s undergraduate journal, Critique. So I was looking forward to addressing these points at a panel event this week on ‘free speech on campus’ organised by the University of Bristol free speech society. Unfortunately, I’ve now been de-platformed.
Bristol students’ union refused to accept me as a speaker, forcing the free speech society to cancel their invitation to me in fear that my presence might spark protests. The SU went on to claim that “public disorder is highly likely.”
No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, it is deeply worrying that people are being banned from talking at events – and students deterred from coming into contact with particular points of view. This censorship and tendency for banning raises big implications about the aims of the groups or institutions who advance such tactics. What’s more, it’s obvious that this fear of debate is only getting worse on Britain’s campuses. After all, nothing could provide a more ironic indication of the current status of social justice orthodoxy in academia than preventing a speaker from talking at an event on ‘free speech on campus’.
So what’s the real reason for this fear of voices that don’t conform to the norms of political correctness? Increasingly it looks like those who would seek to prevent such speakers from appearing on campuses do so because of their own shortcomings. Could it be the social justice groups mobilise against individuals or groups they don’t know how to respond to? Whether that is the case, it’s hard to know without the debate actually taking place. But one thing is clear: universities are letting down their students.
Universities are supposed to be places where young people get their views challenged, have the opportunity to change their worldview, and face criticism for their beliefs, especially the most deeply-held ones. But the way that universities and student unions are succumbing to the demands of a surprisingly small minority is damaging academic debate. It is also harming research, dialogue, and the healthy exchange of ideas upon which our universities depend. We are damned if we deny people their freedom to even debate freedom of speech. And whether we are on campus or not, we will all end up paying the price for the troubling attacks on free speech that are becoming more common at our universities.
Angelos Sofocleous is a philosophy student at Durham university