Why are we still banning speakers at universities?

Universities should be the ultimate champions of free-speech

The recent news that Simon & Schuster have decided to publish Milo Yiannopoulos’ autobiography has caused quite a stir. Some believe he promotes hate speech and anti-feminist views, and so he has been banned from speaking at several institutions, including Manchester SU.

This growing trend of  a ‘no-platforming’ policy at UK universities was seen at Cardiff University last year, where students launched a petition to prevent Germaine Greer from giving a lecture. They claimed her views were problematic for transgender people.

Should universities prevent certain individuals or organisations from speaking at their events, in order to prevent contentious debate and the spreading of potentially radical views? No.

Universities are intellectual hubs and the ultimate proponents of free speech. Yet, ‘no-platforming’ completely contradicts the values we associate with universities.  Seeking to prevent certain individuals from expressing views in order to create a safe space, is a dangerous notion. If anything, the term ‘safe space’ should encourage students to willingly express their views, without fear of being shouted down. Where certain identities and notions can’t be challenged, legitimate debate is gravely threatened and prejudiced and harmful ideas can be left to fester.

University is, of course, where some of the most difficult and challenging questions in society are debated. If not at university, then where else? If students are prevented from exposure to words, speakers, and ideas, they will lack the intellectual armoury that will help prepare them for later-life. Too much safety is, ultimately, a more dangerous prospect, with Greer having claimed that universities were unable to hear ‘unpopular views’.

Universities are regarded by many as liberal havens, but a fundamental feature of liberalism is free speech. Curtailing this through ‘no-platforming’ is hypocritical.  If we do not allow a platform for rational, civilised, debate, then this can promote an increase in polarised, toxic debate and aggressive arguments.

This has become a very topical issue in the UK recently, particularly surrounding Brexit. The refusal to listen to one another has resulted in a culture of intolerance, which has created a poisonous tone of debate where terms such as ‘Bremoaner’ and ‘little Englander’ are thrown around on a whim. Universities must be careful not to follow the same path.

The NUS claim that the ‘no-platforming’ policy permits free speech without intimidation. I completely empathise with this aim. Of course, female students do not need to be exposed to sexist abuse to know that sexism exists. It’s also true, that the opinions of Katie Hopkins or Milo Yiannopolous could be considered offensive, and maybe even slanderous.

However, these issues should be met head on and challenged at university, rather than avoided. If you create a safe haven where students are not accustomed to views that challenge them, then the parameters as to what might constitute an offensive opinion are restricted, and a culture of victimhood is promoted.

Universities should be the ultimate champions of free-speech. At times however, it seems as if they fear it.