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.