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If you’re at uni and can’t accept that people have different opinions, you probably shouldn’t talk about politics

‘The dangers of censorship are far greater then the potential costs’

Jacob Rees-Mogg – the man tipped to be the next Conservative Party leader and due to speak at the University of Bristol this Friday– isn’t shy of controversial opinions.

From the unsavoury to the quite barbaric, most notably he believes that Britain should aim for a hard Brexit, that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed, and that abortion should be illegal even in case of rape.

In opposition to such views, last week at UWE a handful of ‘anti-fascists’ stormed into a university event where Rees-Mogg was speaking, loudly protesting his appearance amidst scenes that came close to violence .

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Jacob Rees-Mogg was involved in a fracas at UWE on 2nd February

But however much we disagree with such opinions, demonstrations like this only serve to show that – in the age of the Internet troll – we increasingly misunderstand and take for granted the principle of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech plays a vital role in any system of democracy. It enables an individual or community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or sanction. It encourages the tough negotiations, lively debate, and active pluralism that are needed for progress. And it is such freedoms and plurality that help foster a vibrant democracy and the advance of knowledge.

Everyone finds something offensive, but it would be a perilous position if the test of expression were if it offends. Whether it’s shouting down opinions or banning speakers from visiting universities, such responses set a dangerous precedent.

Free speech is a fundamental part of the university experience

It not only reveals an unwillingness to understand where others are coming from, but if we start down this road, where do we draw the line? The dangers of censorship are far greater then the potential costs of some people being offended.

At its worst, the refusal to engage with different opinions only encourages the swing to political extremism, as we have seen with the rise of Trump and the vote on Brexit. When people are dismissed as ‘racist’ or ‘ignorant’ – as Clinton did in the US with Trump supporters, and as many did in the UK did with Brexit voters – this only drives such opinions underground, where they slowly ferment and grow until it is too late. It means we miss the opportunity to engage people in debate and hear their concerns. And more fundamentally, it ignores that fact that if we value freedom of speech, we must respect the different opinions that come with it.

Of course, after a certain point our rights as individuals to say what we want come up against the collective. Like most democratic countries, the UK rightly protects against attempts to incite hatred or violence against groups or individuals (e.g. based on race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.). This ensures at least some responsibility on us in return for these freedoms.

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Between 2015-2017 Bristol scored 'Red' in Spiked's free speech rankings

But while Rees-Mogg’s opinions may be out-dated, unsavoury, and may cause offence, and his views may even infer that some groups should have less rights then others, he is not a preacher of hate.

If you don’t like what he believes, the way to voice your disagreement is through rational debate and argument. This is what freedom of speech and democracy are about.

Debating the sort of country we want in this way is an essential activity. Whether at university or beyond, it is vital that people are engaged and feel they have a reason to participate in this process.

In November 2015 alt right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at UoB

But any such debate has to start with an understanding of mutual respect – that people have different worldviews, because they come from different backgrounds and have different concerns.

So, when Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks again in Bristol this week, I hope he is greeted with respect – I don’t agree with him on many issues, but shouting over him only debases the principle of freedom of speech and our system of democracy it underpins.

And, if you really can’t accept that he has just as much right to his opinions as you, then maybe you shouldn’t be talking about politics at all.