The grand debate about freedom of speech on university campuses has started again, particularly here at the University of Edinburgh. Spiked gave the university a ‘red’ rating for freedom of speech on campus, citing its safe space policy and trans-inclusiveness policy, as well as banning The Sun and a controversial speaker.
The topic is one with which campuses are familiar, and is particularly interesting with respect to university students. While many believe university is the time when one’s mind is most open to new opinions, most students seem to be already quite set in their ways about politics. The opinions of parents still greatly influence students’ perceptions, and because university brings together people with different backgrounds from all over the world, it is as easy to find people who share your ideals as it is to find people who heartily disagree with you over the smallest detail.
While many disagree with the way Spiked rates universities’ freedom of speech allowance (Birmingham received a ‘red’ rating because of its anti-bullying platform), one topic that can really be debated is having speakers on university campuses.
In 2015, Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right English Defence League, was scheduled to give a speech at the University of Edinburgh. His appearance was cancelled, however, after he gave a speech to an anti-Islam rally in Germany, spewing hate toward immigrants in a very white nationalist fashion.
When The Tab published this under the headline ‘But who wants to listen to Tommy Robinson anyway?’, comments on the post were in agreement that Edinburgh was limiting free speech, and that many people wanted to go see Tommy Robinson speak.
Maybe he should have been allowed to come because students want to hear him. But we should also let many other people come to the university to speak. We should hear the stories of refugees, have experts come to talk to us about white fragility, and have speakers showing love to marginalised groups. We forget that the best and most effective way to stop hate is to out the haters, and drown their voices with our own.
It does sound corny, but limiting free speech is a lot more complicated than our idealism allows us to believe. Allowing an institution to regulate who is allowed to speak can be dangerous.
Eventually, we will all, at some point, disagree with that institution, or not trust the institution altogether. But all decisions are subjective; who, besides ourselves, can we each always trust to make these decisions? In the interests of the student community, we should bestow this power to represent our interests to the university.
Yes, it is more difficult than banning hate speech, but the thing about free speech is that we can never silence anything completely.
Banning certain speakers can just make these people feel even more entitled to whine about nothing. Drowning out their hate, making them scared to take off their hoods, is what must be done in the long run, so let’s make a better effort at our institutions of higher learning.
Image: Theoden SA via Wikimedia Commons