The free speech crisis happening on campuses

Rosie Norman on the phenomenon of no-platforming

Rosie Norman
27th February 2021
Image: Number 10 on Flickr, edited by Joe Molander
It seems laughable that a government body should be assigned to dictate the parameters of free speech, a concept which at its essence denies parameters. However, given that universities are government-funded, it makes sense that if there is a genuine crisis at their heart, responsibility falls back onto the government.

Despite the cries of sceptics that there is no genuine crisis of free speech on campuses, an increasing amount of evidence suggests otherwise. The most succinct examples of this come from the rise of ‘no-platforming’. Here, speakers have their invitations to speak at university campuses rescinded, often by students’ unions on grounds relating to student welfare. There are endless examples: Linda Bellos, Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and Selina Todd to name a few. What each has in common is that their opinions could be construed as controversial. The key word here is ‘opinions’, which Oxford English Dictionary defines as views or judgements not necessarily based on facts or knowledge.

The most alarming aspect of no-platforming is the implication that there are some things which people should not be allowed to hear. Students’ unions are being given the right to dictate what people can hear and what is acceptable. This in itself demonstrates that there is a genuine crisis of free speech. The idea that students must be protected from opinions contrary to the accepted – and current – orthodoxy is incredibly patronising. We must not forget that orthodoxies change.

By suppressing people whose views we deem repugnant, we give them a kind of power. Are we not in a way validating them by not allowing them to speak? We are confirming that what they have to say is worthy of our attention. Of course, inciting violence or hatred is a different thing. However, this is a distinction with which the intelligence of most university students can surely cope.

It is hard to think of any opinion that, with the application of intellectual and reasoned debate, cannot be defeated. Consider what we gain in giving people with whom we disagree a platform. Suddenly, we have the opportunity to shed light on the darkness and ignorance of those whose views seek to create division and prejudice.   

Ben Hutchins’s article arguing that there is no free speech crisis on university campuses can be read here.

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