Sam Gyimah’s remarks on encouraging free speech at UK universities, made at a private seminar last week and publicised widely in various news outlets, should be welcomed. He recommended that both students and their university administrations work together to champion free speech in ensuring that visiting speakers are given a platform and that universities are not deterred from hosting ‘controversial’ individuals on campuses. He set out proposals for a stricter set of guidelines which included the idea that universities engaging in the no-platforming of visiting speakers could be fined or punished.
However, while tackling tangible examples of no-platforming is essential, we must also challenge the more insidious Safe Space culture emerging on certain campuses. While Safe Spaces do not always involve no-platforming, they create an authoritarian and paternalistic university culture which sidelines free speech and enhances political divisions between students.
The principle of free speech is of utmost importance to the fundamental values of our universities. Institutions which champion intellectual curiosity, societal progress and the exchange of ideas cannot continue to do so without upholding free speech.
Safe Spaces pose a direct challenge to free speech by holding that there are certain protected characteristics or ideas that are off-limits from debate or discussion. For my university- King’s College London- and its student union’s Safe Space policy, these protected characteristics include ideology, religion and sexual orientation. Speakers and students can be asked to leave a university event or face even greater punishment if they are seen to be discriminating or prejudicing these characteristics with speech.
As a formative institution for young people, universities should encourage students to question their ideas and beliefs freely amongst each other, rather than setting aside certain issues which cannot be discussed.
My university has faced several examples of violence against visiting speakers. On the 5th March 2018, speakers Yaron Brook and Carl Benjamin were violently attacked at King’s College London. The incident saw security guards being punched and hospitalised and university property defaced. The violence occurred under the guise of a Safe Space policy which clearly had no use in easing the anger certain students felt at the views of the visiting speakers.
We need to encourage a university environment where students are encouraged to come to talks with visiting speakers that they dislike with and engage with the material they disagree on. This can be either in formal questions or in the form of a peaceful protest which does not infringe against the free speech of the visiting speaker. Safe Spaces directly threaten this free exchange of ideas by creating an insurmountable tension on campus surrounding the characteristics it sets out to protect from any scrutiny. We must focus on tackling Safe Spaces as well as no-platforming in our quest to uphold free speech on UK campuses.