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Free Speech v Safe Space (?)

A response to the Spiked Online Free Speech University Rankings

"If students and academics can’t say the unsayable and think the unthinkable, universities quickly lose their purpose..." 
(Tom Slater, Rankings Co-ordinator for Spiked Online)
Last week, online magazine, Spiked, released the Free Speech University Rankings, a comprehensive analysis of the state of free speech in which the policies and actions of all British universities and their students' unions were ranked using a traffic light system, which ranged from red (banned and actively censored ideas) to green (has a hands off approach to free speech).
The study was made all the more relevant by a succession of high profile news stories in which public debates or guest appearances in some of the country's most celebrated institutions, including both Oxford and Cambridge, have been called off as a result of vocal protests by students complaining that such events would cause intolerable offence as defined by their university's "safe space policy", which is determined individually by each students' union.
The narrative of each of these stories, reinforced by the Free Speech University Rankings, is that protecting the proud British tradition of free speech and open debate is incompatible with protecting students from material or opinions that will offend them. Speaking as both a former students' union officer and now a debate trainer, I must say I beg to differ.
In his interview with Times Higher Education, the rankings co-ordinator, Tom Slater, made two key claims in defence of this conclusion:
“If students and academics can’t say the unsayable and think the unthinkable, universities quickly lose their purpose” and “How can you pursue knowledge if you can’t test all ideas and explore them?”
First it is important to clarify what Tom is really saying here and having reviewed the rankings and read pretty much everything he has written on the subject in the run up to their release, it appears to be this:
  1. The purpose of university is the pursuit of knowledge
  2. Placing any restrictions of free speech beyond those demanded by the law (i.e. inciting hatred) inhibits this purpose
  3. This applies equally to students, academics, university administrations, and students' unions.
If I have in any way misunderstood or misconstrued your true meaning, Tom, please do let me know so I can apologise and correct this blog post accordingly. 
The purpose of university is the pursuit of knowledge
I'm inclined to agree with this, but with qualifications. Since the introduction of tuition fees, I don't think it's unreasonable to assert that students are now paying customers and I'm pretty sure that what they're paying for is a good degree that will help them land a plush job. However, to do that you need to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of your course material by taking exams, while academics are paid to impart this knowledge and continually beef up on it by doing research, sharing and testing ideas, and publishing papers. 
This is the key distinction though. The purpose of a 'university education' can be said to be the pursuit of knowledge, but education is only part of the university experience. The purpose of the other parts, such as extra-curricular activities, is for each and every student to determine individually - more on that in a moment.
Placing any restrictions of free speech beyond those demanded by the law inhibits this purpose
If we're just talking about university education again, perhaps, but I'm not sold. To be sure, one of the ways in which academics test their students' grasp of the knowledge required to pass their course is by conducting classroom debates in which they adopt controversial positions to see how their students react (not well in my experience).
However, open debate should not be confused with free speech. Debate is an intellectual exercise that involves taking arguments to their logical conclusion and holding others to account when they fail to do this. It is not just a platform to say what you want with no regard for the consequences.
Indeed you might say that censorship of a sort (self-censhorship) is rife in such class discussions as they will rarely reflect the true views of the academics leading them, while personal opinions that are not relevant to the discussion have no place in the classroom at all. Still, I am sort of splitting hairs here as Tom is clearly referring to the right to 'say the un-sayable' whether you believe it to be true or not. So, if I'm going to disagree with him, I will need a better reason than that.
This applies equally to students, academics, university administrations, and students' unions.
This is where I take real issue with Tom's argument. This can only apply equally to all elements of university life if the purpose of each is the same. Earlier, I agreed that the purpose of university education was the pursuit of knowledge, but the same simply is not true of Tom's real target, the students' unions. That's because the goal of any union (student or otherwise) is the effective representation of its members' interests. Moreover, like any other club or association, membership is conditional on following the rules set by the club's leadership, which are codified in its constitution.
I know this because ten years ago I sat on a committee of seven SU elected officers responsible for supporting, advising, and regulating all student clubs and societies in the University of Nottingham. This was not a quiet time for us. My term in office coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Miners' strike and the re-election of Tony Blair's New Labour in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. 
However, if you asked the seven of us what issue gave us the biggest headache that year, we could answer you in just three words: The Christian Union. Successive committee meetings were dominated at times by student demands to ban the movement, fueled by allegations of (among other things) rampant homophobia and sexism. The committee was divided too, specifically over the question of whether the CU was guilty of banning women from running for President in its annual elections - a clear breach of the constitution. Added on to this was a thinly disguised contempt for its core values.
When it finally came to a vote on whether to formally disaffiliate (SU speak for ban) the Christian Union, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between three of my colleagues who opposed the ban on the grounds of free speech and three who supported it because of the offence they caused to other students.
I sided with the first three, but not because I thought free speech trumped safe space. Faced with the disapproving glare of two female colleagues who had voted to ban them, I was asked for an explanation. I politely explained that while I sympathised with their cause, they had failed to prove that the Christian Union was in violation of the constitution because none of their female members had ever actually been barred from running for President as they all bought into the interpretation of their faith that told them the president should always be a man. I then advised them to go sign up for the Christian Union that very day and declare their intention to run for President; if any member tried to stop them, I would switch sides instantly. They declined.
The constitution can of course be amended to make it easier to ban groups who cause such offence, but only by an act of a democratically elected student council. Ten years later, we see that many of the unions decried in the rankings have done just that, amending their constitutions to include safe space policies because that's what their students have asked them to do by electing other students who share their commitment to such policies. If you don't like it Tom, then tough: it's their union, not yours. 
So, what now?
Does that mean I agree with the students who respond to opinions they don't like by banning newspapers and picketing events? No. I am as contemptuous of their actions as I was of the Christian Union's ten years ago, but it's their union, not mine. It would be a problem if events such as the much vaunted abortion debate at Oxford were disrupted by protesters despite being held in full compliance with the union's constitution, in which case they should complain that their rights as members have been breached, but not their right to free speech.
If Tom is still going to insist that free speech is under threat here, then I would like him to answer the following questions? Is it a violation of free speech when a football association prohibits fans from displaying the brands of rival sponsors within their grounds? Is it a violation of free speech when professional speaker clubs ban discussions on sex, religion, or politics? Was Ray Mears' right to free speech violated when he was disinvited from speaking at the Caravan, Camping, and Motorhome show after trashing caravans on live TV?  
I would argue no because in each case a person's innate right to say the un-sayable is not being restricted: rather an organisation that is giving them or selling them access to their resources, platforms, and brands, is asking them not to as part of their terms and conditions. So just as Ray Meares is free to say what he wants about caravans, so are Oxford students free to hold all-male debates about abortion - they're just not entitled to expect someone who profoundly disagrees with what they are doing to host or pay for it.
If, however, those same students tried to organise the same debate at their own expense in a private venue or public area, and the protesters turned up demanding their safe space, I would tell them to go find it somewhere else because disrupting this event would indeed be an assault on free speech. Similarly, if a union ever tries to deny membership to a student on account of their political views or religious beliefs, I would call in the courts to enforce their rights. This is where I draw the line between safe space and free speech.
Not for nothing, having worked with young people in some of the UK's most deprived communities and abroad in Rwanda, a country still recovering from a genocide where the instruments of free speech: radio, newspapers, and books, were used to incite hatred, I can tell Tom that free speech often needs a safe space in which to flourish.  
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