At a recent question and answer session with a local sixth form, a pupil asked me, “what do you think of the state of free speech in Britain today?”. I started to answer in a general way about free speech but then moved on to what is happening in our universities. Pent-up feelings started to flow and I suspect the passion I clearly felt started to alarm the polite, thoughtful audience. I have long been worried about a trend in universities to prevent discussion on subjects about which some people might take offence. It seems anyone with even vaguely controversial views on key topics is at risk of being “no-platformed” or excluded from what is rather dictatorially declared as a “safe space”.
University is the place people should go to challenge and be challenged. The trouble is that those who force the “safe space” concept on others go straight to the extreme end of the argument. “So,” they say, “if campuses should be open to everyone are you saying we should have jihadist hate-preachers and neo-nazi racists giving talks?” Just to nail this right from the start, no I am not saying that. But such is the level of absurdity in many of our universities that it is now a crime to offend. Germaine Greer has views on transgenderism that are strident and, in my opinion, wrong, but banning her from speaking to a university audience is daft. More than that it is dangerous. How can you explore the intricacies of life without coming up against differing views? Surely if being at university means anything it is about being inspired to follow beliefs by listening to people with whom you agree and disagree. It’s about challenging and being challenged. And yes, it’s sometimes about offending or being offended.
Last week I heard from a gifted student at one of our leading universities who was removed from a class because she dared to challenge the far-left views of her lecturer. This is a new low. It seems the lecturer had been making their political views known assuming that everyone in the class loathed the Tories too. Being even politely challenged caused offence to the lecturer and apparently made it impossible to continue with the student remaining in the room. This is happening in universities across the country.
So, my message to the decent, polite pupil who asked me the thoughtful question was that when he goes to university he must reclaim free speech from those who are stifling it. Make campuses places of free thought, of challenge and where opinions can be explored. End the descent into a desperately cautious, dull world where universities become just echo chambers of broadly similar and fiercely politically correct opinions. And be ready to be offended and, if necessary, to offend.