Photo credit: Alexandra Nawrat

Report from The York Union: “This House Believes that Freedom of Expression is Under Threat at British Universities”

Image credit: zero-books.net
Image credit: zero-books.net

Freedom of speech is forever growing as a topic of campus discussion. Within the campus, several newspapers have been edited and censored by the student union. Last week the York Union hosted a debate on freedom of expression in its last public event of the term.

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked Online (stylised as Sp!ked) and Haydar Zaki, of the Quilliam Foundation, argued that free speech is under threat on campus; Tom Cutterham, a researcher at New College, Oxford, argued against the motion. (Cutterham’s co-panellist could not attend.)

With a scowl on his face for the whole evening, Brendan O’Neill opened the discussion with a clear-cut definition of what it means for a university not to endorse free speech. If there are some ideas that are not allowed to be expressed on campus, a university does not like freedom of speech.

If a group of students on your campus cannot invite a feminist to come here and say that a man who is not a woman, then you do not have free speech on campus… If you cannot invite someone to your campus because there is a student union policy banning transphobia… then you do not have freedom of speech on campus.

If you can’t invite a speaker who would espouse an unpopular viewpoint to the campus, if ‘Blurred Lines‘ cannot be played on the university radio or in the campus bars (“as thirty student campuses do”), if The Sun or pornographic magazines cannot be read on the premises, or if no-platforming and ‘safe spaces’ are normal, then your university does not support the freedom of expression.

The University of Edinburgh’s union, he said, restricts the ways in which Edinburgh students can laugh; the feminist students of Cambridge and Goldsmiths, University of London, have burned the literature of the Socialist Workers. Rugby players at the London School of Economics were punished by their student union for distributing spoof welcome packs to Freshers that warned them about “homosexual debauchery”. Their union disbanded the club for a year and some of the players were made to publicly wear positive slogans on their clothes, something O’Neill on the night (and his assistant editor Tom Slater wrote on his website) compared to the censorship of Mao’s China. All in all, no one can deny, said O’Neill, that merciless censorship is present at British universities.

O’Neill’s examples, said Tom Cutterham, were dwarfed by the reality of events at other universities. From 2014/2015, 52,000 hate crimes had been reported to the police, a number up by 18% from the previous year’s record. The majority of these crimes were racially-motivated. It was time to consider what was really at stake. No discussion of freedom of expression should go ahead without consideration of innate social problems.

Unpleasant ideas motivate individuals to denigrate others. Who cares about ‘Blurred Lines’ and sexist jokes more than the abuse of the lives and bodies of our friends in wider society? We have the power to adjust or remove certain terrible ideas that lead to the abuse or deaths of our most vulnerable citizens. Cutterham maintained that there was in fact much agreement between O’Neill, Zaki and him, but society must seek to remove its inherent systemic equality, squeezing out racism, misogyny and other unpleasant injustices that hold minorities back. When students choose which speakers they want (and don’t want) to appear at their universities, they can choose which they want to celebrate and which they want to criticise.

Though it was two against one, Haydar Zaki was not singing from exactly the same hymn sheet as his ally. Though Zaki considers safe-space proponents to be acting like “the intellectual mafia,” shielding minorities within protective bubbles that only maintain separation, Zaki did not believe that freedom of expression should be absolute. O’Neill, however, disagrees with the government’s understanding of hate speech and would even permit speech that is alleged to incite violence.

Every minority rights movements, said O’Neill, began with an appeal for freedom of speech. O’Neill’s idol, Frederick Douglass, did not call for limitations to free expression for the protection of minorities. O’Neill recalled how, as a youth, he spent evening after evening on the doorsteps of black and Asian families in London, disturbed and mocked by racists and bigots; but, one day, he found himself on the doorstep of a British National Party bookshop, attempting to prevent the state from shutting it down. Despite not adhering to the BNP’s politics, it was their right, he said, to say what they liked and they did not deserve censorship.

It used to be the case, O’Neill said, that voting was perceived to be too taxing and complicated for a “mere woman” to comprehend in the United Kingdom; democracy was just as baffling to an ignorant black man in the United States. However, individuals and organisations from the Suffragettes to Abraham Lincoln and the NAACP have fought against this. But today, censorship to defend is in fashion, and we are rehashing the arguments against minorities’ capabilities in a new, politically-correct way. O’Neill has no trust in the “illiberal” state to maintain civil liberties in modern society.

Overall it was a very unusual evening of debate. John Stuart Mill, Frederick Douglass, Mao and George Orwell all made sporadic appearances throughout, but references to them were made reluctantly. What should have been two versus two became two versus one, which then began a free-for-all: all of the speakers favoured freedom of expression, but none of them could agree on its precise definition and whether there are any acceptable exceptions. Cutterham feared the suffering of minorities in society, Zaki feared the “dehumanization of the other” and O’Neill feared the malicious illiberal state.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy graduate, studying for MA in Philosophy at University of York.