Freedom of Speech vs. Safe Spaces: A Crisis of Debate at UK Universities?


Flickr/The Weekly Bull

University is a place where open debate should be embraced; a place where differences of opinion on political, social, economic and religious issues are exchanged, and crucially, a place where intolerance and irrational hatred are challenged and ultimately discredited.

This philosophy was reflected in open letters to The Times, in January 2015, and to The Guardian in February 2015, in which 24 Vice Chancellors and 500 academic professors, stated that UK universities should be “centres for debate and open discussion, where received wisdom can be challenged”.

Nevertheless, the recent exclusions, or ‘no-platforming’, of prominent speakers, including the feminist writer Germaine Greer by Cardiff University, and the LGBT human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell by the NUS LGBT officer, has highlighted an increasingly noticeable issue of co-ordinating open debate on contentious issues, whilst ensuring the provision of ‘safe spaces’ for students whose emotional well-being may be affected.

As a result, according to Peter Tatchell, the race amongst student bodies “to be more left-wing and politically correct than anyone else is resulting in an intimidating, excluding atmosphere on campuses”.

This is a view shared by Joanna Williams, an expert in education at the University of Kent, who has suggested that in today’s “marketed and consumer-driven higher-education sector, many students have come to expect freedom from speech”, which includes “safe spaces free from emotional harm or potential offence”.

However, the right to freedom of speech includes the right to potentially offend those whose personal opinions are closely tied to their identity.

Of course, a right is not synonymous with a duty; yet the ability to counter ideas which students find objectionable is crucial in students’ intellectual development.

Indeed, as Louise Richardson, political scientist, and newly instated Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University stated on the day of her formal installation: “Education should be about confronting ideas you find objectionable… fashioning a reasoned argument against them, confronting the person you disagree with and trying to change their mind, whilst being open to them changing your mind. This isn’t a comfortable experience, but it is a very educational one”.

This belief is further echoed by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, who regularly seeks to “challenge students, confront them with views they find unfamiliar, uncomfortable, even shocking, and to take them intellectually out of the ‘safe space’ which, in turn, encourages her students to argue with those with whom they fundamentally disagree, or whose views they might find offensive”.

However, this should not undermine the right, and indeed duty, of student bodies to provide a safe and secure learning environment for all students.

The concept of ‘safe spaces’ is primarily concerned with safeguarding the most vulnerable within the student community, and has stood as a forceful counterpoint to disturbing trends in student life, such as a misogynistic lad culture.

Furthermore, as Tim Squirrell, a former president of the Cambridge Union has highlighted; some issues, which are open to debate, “are not abstract issues. They affect real people”.

Therefore, according to Squirrell, “if you think your case is offensive, you haven’t found the right case to make… There are ways of debating these things which aren’t hurtful”.

Nevertheless, the policy of ‘safe spaces’ has too often been utilised in a reactionary manner, with little foresight as has to how such a policy might impact upon students’ intellectual development.

University should indeed be a ‘safe space’; a ‘safe space’ for free speech, for robust debate, for challenging dogmas and bigoted ideas, and for students to develop the intellectual courage with which to discredit objectionable views and prejudices.


One thought on “Freedom of Speech vs. Safe Spaces: A Crisis of Debate at UK Universities?

  1. This is problematic, especially the Tatchell case. If i’m honest while I see an attempt to be “balanced”, you should probably have focused on one particular case that we can hold up as an example of safe spaces being used in a “reactionary” fashion. You provided no example

    The Tatchell case is a non-issue, from the “censorship” perspective. He explicitly admitted on Twitter that it’s not about his “free speech” being threatened, it was about “McCarthyite accusations of racism and transphobia.” In fact, the No Platform “issue” here did not occur. As it has been said to death, refusing in a private email, to share a platform with someone is not the same as a collective decision to prevent someone from speaking at an event:

    This was followed by days of back-peddling saying he never objected to this student not sharing a platform. And yet the details of this private affair found its way to the Guardian which actively publishes pieces regularly on the safe space moral panic. Which was of course, published as being an issue of free speech. It took several days before he actively said anything about the right to *not* engage with him. That’s without going into his libel threats over various academic texts examining Tatchell’s LGBT politics in relation to race and race intersecting LGBT politics.

    Even *if* there was an instance of No Platform being used, the public sphere is a pluralistic one with many platforms. So, even *if* one disagrees with NP as a strategy either on principle or for practical reasons, it is not a witch-hunt to prevent anyone ever saying anything possibly objectionable. There is no attempt to prevent access to these people’s views. Free speech/public discourse occurs across many many different platforms. Time after time after each famous “public intellectual” declares themselves censored, they get a much larger, wider platform on with which to make this claim. Clearly not censored at all!

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