The reaction to Dr Yaron Brook’s talk shows that we can’t handle free speech

His talk was about the importance of freedom of speech in Western culture. The irony

On 24th October a scheduled talk at Exeter by the Israeli-American entrepreneur Dr Yaron Brook had to be relocated due to student protests. Dr Brook was shouted down as a “racist” and an “Islamophobe”, and those who disagreed were lambasted as ‘white supremacists’ (bizarre, I know). Somewhat amusingly, the title of Dr Brook’s speech was ‘Free Speech and the Survival of Western Culture.

Similarly, on 27th October at University College London an anti-Israel protest forced Jewish students to barricade themselves into a room and await police protection. Two female Jewish students reported being assaulted during the event. The speaker had to leave via the back entrance.

More generally, academics across university campuses are teaching students that words themselves can inflict “violence” and thus should be censored. Attending a criminal law lecture that concerns rape? You don’t need to attend, if you find the topic “triggers” you. Heard something that you find offensive? Withdraw to a “safe space” where you’re free from opposing views.

A speaker you disagree with is delivering a talk? Shut it down so you can feel better.

I was present at the Dr Yaron Brook talk, organized by Undergraduate Live for the public. Before he even had a chance to speak, students affiliated with the Friends of Palestine Society took turns to shout him down. Shouts of “shame on you!”, “you are a racist!” and “free Palestine!” filled the room. I was called a “white supremacist” for daring to suggest that Dr Brook had a right to speak.

Eventually security arrived and relocated us to a different room, explaining that because the event was now a private one “the police can get involved”. Minor disruptions continued and Dr Brook’s scheduled talk had to be cut in half. However, the protests only served to testify to the crux of Dr Brook’s argument: free speech is under threat.

Protests at Exeter

Protests at Exeter

These events – and so many more – form a disturbing pattern. The pattern seems to have emerged first in the United States and now, worryingly, appears to have been exported to these Islands. In each case the target, the chief casualty, remains the same.

What is free speech? It is the right to express any opinion without restraint, provided said opinion does not incite others to violence. It is the right to declare that one is a socialist, or that one is a conservative – even that the world is not round. It is not an exaggeration to say that free speech is the very hallmark of a free society.

To quote J.S. Mill, that 19th-century liberal philosopher: “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.”

But on British university campuses we find that certain opinions are not to be spoken out loud. Zionism is the big no-no, as the recent protest at UCL testifies. Expression of Jewish identity? That’s another big no-no. Do you believe in free markets or in controlled immigration? Best keep those opinions to yourself.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-5-18-59-pm

Protests at UCL

 

Where does this leave the state of university campuses in Britain? They are all the worse off for it, and we are all the worse off for it precisely, because it leaves the state of liberty in peril. If I cannot say that which I believe to be true without threat of violence how can I say that I live in a free society?

The irony, of course, is that this assault on free speech, that liberty which took many a century to secure, is occurring of all places at universities. Aren’t universities supposed to be the places where students are challenged? Where students are exposed to new ideas? Where students are taught to think for themselves and not as part of a group? Evidently not.

The unequivocal assault on free speech testifies that something very wrong has happened to education in the West.

If this culture of “safe spaces”, “micro-aggressions” and “triggering” isn’t addressed then this country – much like many university campuses – will degenerate into a self-loathing echo chamber.

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