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No, Freedom of speech does not give you a free pass to oppress

Friday 12-02-2016 - 16:14

“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” ― Malcolm X

So you might have seen in the media that writing think pieces about the "threat" to free speech" on campus is really in right now. But before we start analysing this situation let's look at the definition of free speech:

'Free speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.'

So when you first look at this definition many people think that it means you can say whatever you like whenever you like wherever you like. Nope. Why not? - Because with great power there must also come great responsibility (Spider-Man) - which basically means that free speech does actually come with some restrictions. Sorry, the pale stale male philosopher quotes that are usually dug up as an argument don't actually represent reality. Because in practice:

  •  Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement. And restrictions can also be justified if they protect specific public interest or  the rights and reputations of others.
  • Any restrictions on free speech and freedom of expression must be set out in laws that must in turn be clear and concise so everyone can understand them.
  • People imposing the restrictions (whether they are governments, employers or anyone else) must be able to demonstrate the need for them and they must be proportionate.
  • All of this has to be backed up by safeguards to stop the abuse of these restrictions and incorporate a proper appeals process." (Amnesty International)

What’s going on in the mainstream press right now is a presentation of affairs in which somehow universities are simultaneously limiting "free speech" and stifling "controversial" ideas and also opening their doors to extremist views and terrorism. Confused? You're not alone.

In the red corner: Our students are being mollycoddled by safe spaces
This narrative plays on the idea that safe space policies (that mostly say things like we don't tolerate hate speech/crime or the inciting harassment and violence here) are a "threat" to free speech and the world of academia in general.

In the blue corner: Our universities are basically terrorist bootcamps
This is the narrative that presents universities as spaces that often invite extremists to talk to students and utimately using them to turn against "British values" join Isis and become terrorists. This narrative also benefits the government's agenda which involves putting heavy restrictions in place to spy on Black and Muslim students through the PREVENT initiative.

Now universities are not the state or the law, but they do have an obligation to duty of care for their students and staff. And they set out their restrictions, the need for them and the safe grading processes in the form of speakers policies, not safe space policies. Even I have to be checked by institutions before being allowed to speak at certain events, it’s part of their basic procedures and how they facilitate free speech in a responsible manner. So if you were denied the chance to speak at a university, there’s a good chance you may have violated the SU's safe spaces policy but that wasn't the key policy in which the decision evolved from. Amnesty international also points out that When the Restrictions which are created that "do not comply with all these conditions violate freedom of expression."

"But what about debate" ... Firstly I don't know why people are going on as if there aren't rules in the world of academic debate either. I personally think that there is a limited understanding of the diverse nature of teaching and learning if people think that the only way to discuss pressing issues like racism is to invite a famous racist on campus and let the best debate participant win. As if life is just an elite university debating chamber, where feelings and emotions are irrational traits and not part of human nature. Through safe space policies you allow people to express themselves and take part in educational and social activity without the threat of hate speech, hate crime and discrimination. This isn't the opposite of how free speech works.

I think it's strange (but makes sense because it’s how privilege works) that this "But what about debate" argument gets pushed to the forefront whilst the activism within academia about liberating our curriculums to allow marginalised and diverse voices are often suppressed. In the discussion on freedom of speech there's not often much effort looking at how privilege plays a part of the argument because it makes the people who are used to having power and who are used to people listening to them, feel uncomfortable. We’ve seen this in the media's reaction to Oxford University Rhodes must Fall campaign.

Instead of looking at liberation and platforming of marginalised groups of people who have been systematically prevented from being represented in academia, we are bombarded with the same old privileged (and predominantly white) faces, demanding their "right" to have a platform on our campus to spread hateful views which have a detrimental impact on the education and welfare of students with protected characteristics. There seems to be a trend where people are using their imaginary self-obtained "banned from NUS" badge to rebuild their relevance in the public eye.

This of course is all facilitated and upheld by the mainstream media. The media often chooses to focus on these people who claim they have been silenced but have been given multiple platforms in major news outlets and programs to voice their opinions. There is a clear hierarchy being defended here that prioritises the voices of the privileged. This, in my opinion is a massive distraction from the real threat to freedom of speech and expression on campus. PREVENT, which is an actual state-led initiative to monitor students as suspects, isn’t challenge by the mainstream media. An initiative which has led to students being accused of being a terrorist for reading books on terrorism and many more ridiculous events.

Right now, there are students being spied on and made to feel like they cannot express themselves on their campus because of a state-led initiative. So if you want to talk about free speech on campus and cry about safe spaces but not talk about PREVENT you are actually just wasting my time.

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