Private conversations should remain private
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The comments made in the Bracton Law Society were horrific, but private

It is undeniable that incidents of racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia are rampant at British universities, both amongst students and lecturers. Only last year, a University of Warwick staff member made racist comments during a Law careers event when she made disparaging remarks to a black student, claiming that black students were more laid back, before asking her to speak for all black people. Similarly, a black student, Faramade Ifaturoti, found bananas left in her student-halls kitchen with the words “monkey” and “n****” scribbled in black marker. It is more important than ever though to distinguish between these incidents and private conversation.

These incidents were cases of hate directed towards particular individuals and should be punished with the full force of the law. Incidences such as these reveal that there has been a rise in intolerance towards minorities, bolstered by the rise of the far-right in the Western world. However, these instances were public, offensive and deserved to be outed. The perpetrators of the Bracton Law Society scandal made such comments within the privacy of a group chat which they believed would not be viewed by others. Why are their private views being criticised and punished for nothing more than an isolated conversation with friends?

Incidences such as these reveal that there has been a rise in intolerance towards minorities, bolstered by the rise of the far-right in the Western world

It is simple. Conversations that are intended to be private should remain private. Must students worry about their private “banter” being shared with the rest of the country? Privacy appears to be a thing of the past. Opinions on issues such as race, sexuality and gender should not be censored, no matter how abhorrent they may seem. As an Asian Muslim woman, I was horrified that comments that invoked a “race war” and claimed that “rape is funny” were sent on a Whatsapp group chat. Nonetheless, policing private conversations gives the impression that only certain views and opinions are allowed both in the public sphere as well as the private, which greatly stifles debate.

University is a chance for students to explore and challenge traditional views that they have grown up with, not be restricted by their unions and peers. Many have criticised the National Union of Students for “no-platforming” groups that cause offence.  Surely banning students from discussing things that do not fit with liberal principles of tolerance defeats the liberal notion of free speech in the first place? Universities should be a symbol of free speech, but rather they seem to censor controversy. The “Exeter Five” did not expect their private radical views to be exposed to the public domain which is why it is unfair that they should be judged. How many group chats and private messages were deleted in light of these events? Students should not be forced to stifle their words when having private conversations with their friends, let alone at university.

It is simple. Conversations that are intended to be private should remain private

Around five hundred years ago, Tyndale criticised the University of Oxford for not allowing the study of scripture during the Reformation period and this controversial statement was debated. Five hundred years later, during an era when we hail free speech in the public and private sphere as a fundamental right, students such as the Exeter Five are remanded for exercising this very right. The comments they made were offensive and horrific. Discussing the prevalence of racism, sexism and homophobia in our universities is important, but so too is the lack of free speech that is ascending our institutions.

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Comments (5)

  • Steven Wilding

    You are An Uncle Tom if you think privacy is an excuse

  • I don’t agree with you at all. I am an Exeter University student and the reason why this chat was so significant was that the members held significant positions in what is the largest society on campus. It confirmed what many of us knew; that many student bodies here are run by a bunch of white, entitled racists who see no problem with their actions. Had this not been discovered, the status quo would have remained even though it was apparent to many students that Bracton was not fit for purpose as an inclusive society. People romanticise free speech when really these guys aren’t martyrs for it at all like you seem to depict. Instead, these guys were revealed to be the disgusting lot that they are. Running down a dead end into some woolly free speech argument is a weak framing of the situation that doesn’t solve anything.

  • At risk of being called an apologist or ‘Uncle Tom’, I do believe that private conversations should be allowed to be private, regardless of how offensive their contents are. It hurts to see people expressing these views in group chats like the Exeter students’ one, but there are a few things which I would point out. Firstly, even if people do sincerely hold these horrific views, outing private messages won’t stop them from having them. I personally think it’s naive to think that we can combat racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination by policing private conversations.. It doesn’t work like that, it only emboldens people wth bigoted views. Secondly, a horrendous and tasteless joke, when expressed in private between friends, is still a joke. I think it’s dangerous to think that hate speech laws should apply, the law is not the morality police. Thirdly, whatever happened to civil liberties? I know it’s oft-(mis)quoted, but I do think Ben Franklin’s words are in fact relevant here: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” And, of course, Evelyn Hall’s ‘Voltairean principle’ springs to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I know some will disagree, but the thought of living in an Orwellian nightmare of thoughtcrimes and an utterly perished right to privacy is very worrying to me.

  • Thank god we have people advocating for free speech, universities are clamping down too much with left leaning authoritarian ideologies being prevalent. Why is there a rape culture at universities if the universities have been predominately left and liberal since the 60s???

  • How private was this group? There is a big difference between a society-level group chat and a conversation between friends who all know each other tonne like-minded. I genuinely don’t believe these people actually held these views, I think they were attempting to engage in “shock” humour by deliberately being as offensive as possible (a la Ricky Gervais, perhaps). The question of the nature of this group is important. Were these comments inappropriately posted on a society WhatsApp group containing people they knew would be offended by them? Or were they posted on a private group containing only people they felt were in on the joke. If it’s the former, they deserve punishment. If it’s the latter, it would make me very uncomfortable if they were censored.

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