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Free speech rankings: Don’t silence, argue

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Spiked has just released its 2017 ‘Free Speech University Rankings,’ with the result that over 63.5% of universities place ‘severe restrictions’ upon free speech, including Warwick. In response, NUS President Malia Bouattia penned a piece for the Independent explaining why she found the rankings to be nonsense and her defence of free speech.

Bouattia says in her piece that ‘free expression is not and has never been limitless’, but she couldn’t be more wrong. Free speech must always be limitless, or else it is not free speech.

The implication in this piece is that comments should be moderated before they are spoken – that a speaker has the responsibility to think about the impact that their words may have, and choose them on that basis.

Free speech must always be limitless, or else it is not free speech

But this is completely off – the moment you start hanging bells and whistles on a right, it ceases to be a right. Free speech comes with one responsibility only, and that’s to speak the truth as you see it.

The suggestion is that the size of the platform you speak from somehow correlates to the size of your free speech. Hence the need for safe spaces – it offers a platform and helps amplify the voice of the speaker.It’s a good idea in principle, but it has evolved into another way to stifle debate and cast a shadow over the rest of the ‘unsafe’ campus.

The moment you start hanging bells and whistles on a right, it ceases to be a right

The piece’s other line is that it is necessary for some restrictions in order to tackle hate speech. Hate speech, in case you’re unaware, is an abomination, rhetoric which serves only to divide.

However, what Bouattia calls hate speech would be, I imagine, very different from my own view. Hate speech, if we’re honest, is the free speech you don’t agree with, but you have no right to shut it down. You don’t agree with it – fine, but argue against it.

Hate speech, in case you’re unaware, is an abomination, rhetoric which serves only to divide

Bouattia says that a civil society requires us to sacrifice some of our rights, in order to ensure everybody can be heard. This way, everybody is protected from harm. But, and here’s the clincher, words can be weapons in a clash of ideas, but you’re not going to harm anyone by speaking your mind.

Perhaps you’ll offend people. But offending people is a prime example of free speech in action, but then you must be prepared to listen to the other side of the argument.

Words can be weapons in a clash of ideas, but you’re not going to harm anyone by speaking your mind

We’re told that this is a generation who says that it is a ‘duty’ to no-platform fascists because they have to protect democracy. Two issues here – firstly, who gets to define what fascism is. And then, it misses the point that free speech is vital for democracy to function, and telling people that it is therefore necessary to shut down some viewpoints is totally insane.

Universities are supposed to be places where you can expand your mind, and tackle new and challenging ideas. Instead, newspapers are being banned, speakers are shut down before they can speak, free speech is being infringed upon in the name of protecting it. Bouattia says that this is needed to help ‘secure the freedoms of all’ – if that’s what she thinks she’s doing, I’d hate to see her ideas of restrictions.

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