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University Free Speech: A Ticking Time Bomb?

Most people are smart enough to not let an opinion consume their lives and most are also intelligent enough to shoot back with their own opinions. By keeping the debate from happening, they are denying one of the most beautiful things about free speech- allowing someone to respond to an opinion that might not be agreeable.

Sarah Stook
Naked Politics Blogger

Peter Hitchens is forever a controversial man, but it’s more than a little surprising that his scheduled speech at the University of Portsmouth was ‘postponed’ aka cancelled.

The official reason, given by the Student Union, was that students raised concerns about his published views, something that apparently conflicts with the LGBT+ campaign month. Hitchens immediately went to Twitter- his favourite platform- to complain of censorship and the thought police.

It may seem a little overdramatic to use the words that Hitchens used, but he is not completely incorrect. Whilst universities are not exactly North Korea in their censorship as some might think, the free speech has become somewhat of a shrinking culture in higher education. Many readers will strongly disagree with the socially conservative Hitchens, but that does not mean that he should be silenced. The promotion of the LGBT+ community is somewhat freedom of speech, allowing a minority to express themselves. Hitchens’ view is also in the minority. Whether their views are the majority or minority, they should have the right to speak.Portsmouth student unionSince when did one view take precedence over another? University is a place to not only study a degree, but open up new opportunities and think freely. The problem is not entirely stifled speech, but preferring one opinion to another or one kind of speech to another. Hitchens is not advocating for the death penalty for gays or asking us to spear them in the streets; he is merely promoting a different view. That view happens not to be the majority.

Two notable examples are Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer, who have been deemed ‘TERFS’ (trans exclusionary radical feminists) by opponents, and are no platformed for apparently being transphobic. Neither Bindel nor Greer has advocated for active harm to come to transgender people, but have instead said something that some may find offensive. It’s a little hard to justify the offence though, as nearly everyone is offended by something- it just doesn’t make them correct. By banning Bindel and Greer for their views, it is not letting people learn and accept new views. Most of all, the university is failing in its task by not fulfilling its purpose of intellectual enrichment. Sure, people can go Google something, but that makes people go out of their way.germain greer hitchensIt shouldn’t have to be that way.

It’s comparable with sleepwalking- you don’t know that you’re doing it, it’s subconscious and usually it’s pretty slow. It’s still happening, but not in a way that’s too noticeable for anything to be done about it. Some universities have started breaking away from the NUS, but the vast majority still find themselves rated poorly in the freedom of speech department. Frankly, the student unions probably don’t even know that they’re oppressing free speech, it’s a groupthink. They think that they’re doing the right thing by protecting minorities and stopping horrible thought. Sleepwalking, they don’t know what they’re doing.

On a final point, this censorship is more offensive to minorities and vulnerable students than any disagreeable speech they may hear. University is a time for independence, when students are becoming adults, learning to live independently and to prepare them for a world outside of exams. By babying students, treating them as children whose ears need to be covered, they are not treating intelligent young learners with the respect that they deserve. I am sure that ethnic and sexual minorities know their own views and have their own opinions that are a better representative of their beliefs than the student unions. Most people are smart enough to not let an opinion consume their lives and most are also intelligent enough to shoot back with their own opinions. By keeping the debate from happening, they are denying one of the most beautiful things about free speech- allowing someone to respond to an opinion that might not be agreeable.bannon-at-the-OxfordIt’s not as fast and explosive as a time bomb in an action movie; it’s more of a sleepwalking and gradual epidemic. The question is: can we recognise the sign in time to cure the epidemic and stop the bomb? It’s time to wake up.

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