Universities have many roles – researching and creating new knowledge, disseminating that knowledge through their teaching and learning programmes, contributing to economic and social development, and stimulating debate.
This latter role is essential, but has come under threat through the ‘Safe Spaces’, ‘No Platform’ and ‘Trigger Warning’ movements that have developed with an increasing pace since the late 1980s. They seek to prevent students from hearing opinions that they may find distressing or testing.
Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May has expressed her clear opinions on the dangers of safe spaces and no platform policies of the type promoted by the National Union of Students (NUS).
While it is true that the majority of students are in favour of the NUS policy, Peter Tatchell, for many years a leading campaigner for gay rights, has said that “Democracy does not include the right to vote away the free speech and human rights of others.”
The actor Stephen Fry has similarly criticised safe spaces and trigger warnings as infantilising and potentially eroding free speech
The current ‘no-platforming’ policy held by the NUS is a dangerous threat to free speech within learning institutions. Of course, all bigots should be protested and people with offensive views should not be given a free pass. They should be challenged. The best way to do this is through open debate that refutes their intolerance. If you censor or ban them, their ideas just become suppressed. They don't cease to exist, but they cannot be effectively countered.
The actor Stephen Fry has similarly criticised safe spaces and trigger warnings as infantilising and potentially eroding free speech. However, many high-profile speakers - including the Israeli ambassador, feminist writer Germaine Greer, human rights activist Maryam Namazie, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, and extreme right wing politician Nick Griffin have been asked not to appear at student events for fear that their opinions would be too upsetting for some.
Providing that they do so without recourse to threat or abuse, students and academic staff must have the freedom to express their ideas free of restriction. Students must be able to enter into honest, transparent and open discussion without fear of intimidation, discrimination or trolling. There is a feeling that these policies are a tool used by the hard left to suppress opposition when they disagree with others.
In Britain, the declaration of safe spaces for some creates barriers and limits access and free speech for others. At Goldsmith’s, access to an LGBH event was restricted to exclude some students because they were not also from Black Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Jewish students have been excluded from human rights debates in the confusion of race and political views. At the University of Edinburgh the student vice-president for academic affairs was threatened twice with being thrown out of a meeting after being accused of violating ‘safe space’ rules - by raising her hand. The LSE student union has banned a free speech society.
In Britain, the declaration of safe spaces for some creates barriers and limits access and free speech for others. At Goldsmith’s, access to an LGBH event was restricted to exclude some students because they were not also from Black Minority Ethnic backgrounds
The issue is also contentious in the United States. At the University of Chicago, Dean of Students John “Jay” Ellison has informed new students that they do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
It is essential that rigorous but civilized debate may challenge and even cause discomfort. The President at Brown University in Rhode Island, Christina Paxson, declared in her convocation address that “Suppressing ideas at a university is akin to turning off the power at a factory.”
As in the title of Thomas Middleton’s play of 1605, it’s ‘A Mad World, My Masters,’ we do not seem to have made much progress in 400 years. We should not descend further into madness. Difference, dispute and disagreement are a part of life and our students will be going out to work in a harsh world. We must prepare them for this.
In this increasingly global environment universities should stimulate real and respectful debate between people with varied perspectives. This is the only way to help develop mutual understanding and improve our abilities to understand each other and work together.