Free speech at university is dying. The tide has turned. The sun on what used to be the champion of the free exchange of ideas has set and as more instances come to light, few can deny that this is an uncontroversial reality.
It is important that we take a synoptic look at the core purpose of universities. Ask yourselves, what do you envision universities should be? One could argue institutions that encourage intellectual growth in its students. Others may contest that universities are bastions of the future generation, equipping young adults with the skills to thrive in the working world. However, one cannot contest that the fundamental component on which all these rest is freedom of speech. This bedrock of university culture however, is rapidly being eroded away by forces that are hijacking the mainstream narrative through a vanguard of compassion and inclusiveness.
As I sat between our guest speakers at King’s College London, with swarms of masked men charging in to obstruct the event, I faced this fascist manifestation. An enemy to intellectual growth, the free exchange of ideas, and open mindedness masqueradingas an ‘anti-fascist’ front descended on the lecture theatre. This is merely the beginning. When considering that universities inhabit our future leaders, politicians, scientists and academics, such influences are only likely to plague other arenas of society at large.
More broadly, roadblocks to free speech are not obscure occurrences committed by fringe individuals, but rather embedded in the framework of university andstudent union practises themselves. My university, for example, performs a ‘risk assessment’ on all potential external speakers before they are even accepted to speak. The very premise of ideas being risk assessed runs counter to the toleration of free speech and the exposure of a spectrum of views; ideas that universities should be championing. Thisis complemented by a stringent set of rules that increase the difficulty of expanding the parameters of debate to controversial and challenging topics.
What can we do to change things? Students should be firmly standing up for the importance of free speech at university and holding their institutions to account. The cornerstone of any university is its students, hence it is vital that their voices be heard. Although I cannot begin to scratch the surface of the means in which we can challenge the dangerous direction universities are heading in, recognising the essence of this threat to education and society is a critical start. It is time that we realised that the corrosion of free speech would take with it the vision we have for our universities, and only exacerbate the political polarisation which has plagued the Western world. This is not a question of left wingers against right wingers, the alt-right versus the alt-left, or conservatism versus liberalism, but a battle between authoritarian tendencies and freedom in which we all play a role.