Debates about free speech on campus are overdone, but at the extreme ends people often forget that the principle of free speech does not exist in a vacuum.
If you take a gander at certain publications in this country it’s actually hard to miss. Whether it’s a column that moans about how trigger warnings are creating a snowflake generation, to how certain no-platforming decisions are Stalinism in a microcosm, every couple of months the right of centre press never fails to display its anxiety about the rise of ‘the real fascists’. Pivot your gaze to the other end of the newsstand and you can read about how certain opinions are a threat to student safety or something. All of this has become so out of hand that even Theresa May and Jo Johnson have felt the need to encourage free speech at University.
I’ll be honest, I’m one of those people that thinks listening to views you don’t agree with – and may even be deeply personally offended by – is important for your development as an individual. Being able to process those opinions and think about responses to them can help you break out of monotonous group thinking, which at the very least can make you a less boring person intellectually. Is University the best time to do this? Also yes. Unless you go into journalism (may God have mercy on your soul) most of your time will be spent arguing about corporate strategy or for those of us blessed with humanities degrees trying to convince employers that making up references in an essay is in fact a transferable skill.
All of that being said, it’s a stretch for the government and free speech guerrillas to try and force Universities, student bodies, and societies into engaging in this exercise. What I think those engaged in promoting free speech on campus forget is the wider liberal philosophy that free speech is placed in. For all the fawning over Locke, Mill and (god forbid) Ayn Rand, that some free speechers engage in, they forget that private organisations also have freedom of association. The right to freedom of speech and expression doesn’t mean I or fellow Union members have to subject ourselves to ramblings that will inevitably include some homage to the great, but ironically deified, Christopher Hitchens. See? Even I’ve done it. Whilst some try their best to promote civil discourse at University sometimes you just have to admit that people don’t care.
The same applies to those who get angry when a speaker they don’t like comes on to campus. No one is forcing you to go. If you’re worried about your safety fear not, neither the Dialectic Society or Politics Society will be knocking on your tenement flat door to hold a panel discussion featuring Nigel Farage in your kitchen.
In fact, Glasgow seems to have the balance right. I can think of a couple of examples where those often maligned by the other side in the free speech debate have conducted themselves in a manner that shows they understand the wider context of freedom of expression. On a particularly busy Wednesday at the QM, the Socialist Workers Party were hosting a seminar on women’s rights. The feminist society, on the grounds that the Socialist Workers Party has had a checkered past on the issue, decided to protest against. But they didn’t try to have the event cancelled, instead two of them very politely handed out leaflets outside the committee room and explained their grievances. On the other side of the debate, and during Glasgow’s close brush with the rise of right-wing populism, during the Rector election I had to contact all the campaigns to let them know that the GUU would only be hosting material related to Lady Cosgrove’s campaign. Whilst some of the campaigns derided us for not supporting democracy, the Milo campaign sent a lovely email explaining they understood our decision and would even co-operate in the removal of their campaign material if we found it in the building. Considering Milo wanted to host a ‘free speech festival’ this was quite refreshing.
So what does this all mean? Well, this debate won’t be going away, so long as students convince themselves of the universality of the non-aggression principle, convince themselves that being controversial equates to being an intellectual maverick, or convince themselves that views they don’t like are a threat and not an opportunity, we’ll all be damned to live in this rut. At Glasgow we have a happy medium, the prevailing apathy of the majority of the student population toward campus life is at both times depressing but also heart warming. For the small majority engaged in the particulars of campus current affairs there does seem to be an understanding that freedom of expression is good, and debate should be encouraged, but it shouldn’t interrupt my workout/anti cycle-thievery/pint of fun/mac and cheese.
By Doug Jack