It seems to be becoming an ever-increasing epidemic that universities and student unions are banning controversial speakers for the safety of their students. Many libertarians and sceptics are criticising this behaviour, arguing that it’s repressing the speakers’ freedom of speech – an undeniable pillar of modern democratic values.
However, particularly in Britain, freedom of speech is not absolute. Whether it is inciting hatred against marginalised groups, or even criticising “British values”, according to Cameron’s Prevent program, your right to speak has well-established limits. The exact points of these limits are up for debate of course, but the fact remains that they exist and for good reasons.
The strongest of those is of course safety. Currently, it’s fair to say that contemporary feminist, LGBT+ and racial issues are still highly controversial. The world is continuously progressing towards liberal acceptance and compassion towards the structural oppression that marginalised groups face. However, especially on campuses, issues such as rape culture, trans+ identities and institutional racism are still apparently up for debate.
At this point, it really shouldn’t be. As a young generation of hopefuls, we ought to be compassionate to one another, and try our best to listen to and understand each others’ individual struggles, which are often made up of intersecting social injustices. Providing a platform in universities for speakers that are hateful towards marginalised groups increases their publicity, validates their views and, in turn, achieves the opposite.
“But banning speakers discourages debate”, some argue -which is true, it limits the chance for discourse across campus on the relevant issue. But then, so does inviting a person to give a one-sided lecture. At the University of Bristol, the Feminist Society successfully lobbied for infamous misogynist Milo Yiannopoulos to debate with a feminist, replacing the initial plan to have him speak on gender politics alone. Generally speaking however, when a speaker is chosen to be banned, the case is thoroughly evaluated by unions; that the speaker’s views aren’t just “debatable”, but that they actually promote an unsafe environment for minorities.
It could be argued that someone with less progressive views needs to be protected just as much as a liberal. However, banning speakers isn’t protecting views or opinions themselves, it’s protecting actual people. By defending marginalised groups, a university isn’t taking away any of the existing rights of privileged people, it’s just making campus a safer space for a greater scope of its students. It’s simply implementing a policy where students feel comfortably free to be themselves, as long as “being themselves” doesn’t include inciting hatred against others.
It certainly isn’t silencing or repressing the freedom of speech of the banned speakers. The majority of the time, speakers are invited specifically because of their success in voicing their views. In the UK, there is virtually nothing stopping people from expressing themselves through blogs, vlogs or fringe media outlets such as Breitbart.
Germaine Greer, who was banned from Cambridge due to her transphobia, had the luxury of being able to voice her opinions on wide-reaching media platforms for decades, through published books and through articles. Being a well established public figure, there is little about her which needs protecting. Meanwhile, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence showing why trans+ people need actual protection, not just “tolerance”. This includes a study, which showed that nearly half of young transgender people in the UK have attempted suicide.
Many argue that forcing universities to have these “safe space” policies is too protective, and that it assumes students are too sensitive to handle the real world. This doesn’t, however, recognise the fact that the real world is constantly progressing, and should strive to have compassionate attitudes towards oppressed minorities. It also fails to acknowledge that the university, as an institution, should independently act towards that progress as well.
Furthermore, these marginalised students are far from “too sensitive” for the real world. In fact, lobbying for protection on campus is only evidence of their awareness of the structural inequalities they have to face outside of university. As young adults, they most likely have to face discrimination pretty much everwhere, so what’s wrong with them demanding a safe space in at least one area of their lives?
I find the concept that these well known speakers are being “silenced”, when marginalised groups have been silenced for centuries, to be extremely rich in irony. It’s time to balance the books and give the traditionally voiceless their own chance to speak.