Students and staff who have worked on university open days will typically find three buzz words that their university stands for: educate, inspire and challenge is but one example. These words are normally demonstrated on leaflets and posters and thus the prospective student forms an opinion of what he can expect to see if he chooses to study there.
The words mentioned above are a reminder for those who wish to comment on an issue that seems to be prevalent amongst UK universities at the moment. That issue is one of free speech. The Education Act, 1986 states: ‘Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’
There is however, an issue with freedom of speech because there are limits to it. Can an individual shouting fire in a theatre (Schenck v United States) be protected under the auspices of what we take to mean freedom of speech? This question applied to the following cases changes somewhat: banning a magazine, banning hats, banning a speaker. The change is not one of the law but one of offence. The decision to ban human rights lawyer, Maryam Namazie in the last case was due to the possibility of her inciting, ‘hatred on campus’.
The reason for the ban was due to the union’s external speakers’ policy which states that speakers are “not permitted to encourage, glorify or promote any acts of terrorism” or “spread hatred and intolerance in the community” and “must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups”. Namazie replied on her blog stating: “The student union seems to lack an understanding of the difference between criticising religion, an idea or a far-right political movement on the one hand and attacking and inciting hate against people on the other”. What is the conclusion one can draw here? One conclusion is that the issue is not as clear-cut as it first appears and thus the event should have gone ahead. The purpose of the event going ahead would be that individuals would be educated on a critical view. The critical view appears to be coming from her position as an atheist (once a follower of Islam) and her experience as a woman following Islam. Whether she is right or wrong in her criticism is beyond the scope of this piece. However, the pertinent point I wish to defend is that it is merely an opinion. As J.S Mill expressed: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Yet there are still two charges to answer for: 1) In certain cases the event is a lecture which gives a platform to the objectionable view and there is no opportunity to debate. The rebuttal that in such events there is often questions at the end that can be asked is met with the further objection – that this is an unfair power dynamic. The unfair dynamic points to the fact that in certain cases they are an academic therefore as students we don’t have equal standing in our points.
The first charge appears somewhat flawed for the following reasons. If there is no opportunity to ask questions are the attendees somewhat disadvantaged in hearing the view they find somewhat objectionable? I would argue no. They have engaged with their opponent’s argument and are thus prepared to analyse what they disagree with. They can do a myriad of things post the lecture: they could organise a lecture outlining what they disagreed with, speak to fellow students and spark a debate, discuss with lecturers and clarify their contentions. In short, the advancement of everyone’s education is achieved. To the additional charge of an unfair power dynamic there is the fallacy argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to reverence) should those who they [those students who are supposedly allowing the offensive view to be articulated] disagree with say, that because they have invited ‘person x’ (an authority on the subject) the view ‘person x’ articulated is by definition correct. Thus, the power dynamic is removed.
The second charge is the following: 2) there are certain speakers who are clearly incendiary and thus should be banned because they are danger to students’ wellbeing. An example is the infamous Katie Hopkins who has aired such reprehensible views as, ‘sending gun boats to refuge boats’ and referring to migrants as ‘cockroaches’. To this charge I would argue that the best way of rebutting her views is not to ban her from attending but to challenge her. There is nothing more dangerous to a bad idea than it being met with a good idea. In defence of this claim take the example of Nick Griffin who when allowed a platform on BBC Question Time was ‘panned by the press, with his own party officials admitting today that their leader had made a less than impressive showing on last night’s show as he was repeatedly criticised by fellow panellists and jeered by a hostile audience’. This is opposed to banning such speakers who more often than not gain a notoriety from such banning claiming absurdities such as ‘no-one wants to listen to these very sensible views, they’re banning me’, ‘all you’ve got to do is listen to his views, and then you realise you don’t have to listen to them’.
In relation to this argument there will be points I have not considered or have not given ample consideration to. Thus, some may dismiss this argument right away as merely a pompous male trying to validate his ego via a written piece. That may well be true but I hope we all collectively give due deference to Tallentyre’s immortal maxim: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.