The Importance of Protecting Free Speech

A recent article has been published by The Tab, criticising the government for its efforts to protect free speech. One might assume it argues the government is not going far enough to protect a human right that is proven to be under threat in universities. Sadly this is not the case; the author of this The Tab article argued that “there is no free speech crisis on campus” simply because only 0.06 percent of talks have been interrupted or cancelled as a direct results of the views of the speakers.

Free speech is so much more than merely allowing a speech to go ahead or not; it is the ability for anyone to make, consider, and criticise reasoned views in any situation, whether it be on social media, with friends, or in a class. It is the backbone of our democracy and it is a basic liberty. Free speech enables humanity to improve, to protest, to make a case for a more tolerant world. Without it, the world loses voices who vouch for actions to save the environment; heroes who defend equality amongst races and gender; and champions who stand up to those who exploit their power. Rather than accepting hate speech, free speech allows for the condemnation of bigotry, and without it there is no way of defeating prejudice and discrimination. This author who claimed that preserving free speech on campus “isn’t important at all” would do well to remember states where free speech was or is not protected such as the USSR, Nazi Germany, North Korea, and China.  

Free speech is under threat in universities across the UK. In the latest Free Speech University Rankings made by Spiked in 2018, 54% of universities were ranked Red, meaning they actively censor speech by banning certain views from being expressed on campus. 40% were ranked Amber, meaning they chill speech through unnecessary regulation. Only 6% were in the Green category, meaning they placed no significant restrictions speech. Furthermore, in December 2020, a report by Civitas gave 42% of universities the most restrictive censorship score for free speech.

Echo chambers are prominent. Those who argue – with good intentions – for valid libertarian policies such as an end to lockdown, lower taxes, and deregulation, are frequently demonised and shut out of the debate. University should be a place of logical and open discussion where contrasting views are encouraged. Opinions should be considered and challenged, not silenced as is too often the case. 

Despite being wrong about the free speech crisis in universities, the author does make excellent points about the mental health and economic crises students are facing. During a period which is supposed to be the best time of their lives, students are told to stay home and socialise and learn through Zoom. Online is no way to live, no substitute for reality. It is not at all shocking a survey of 4,000 students by the NUS union has found that more than half believe their mental health has deteriorated since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, it is only surprising this percentage is not higher. 

Ending coronavirus restrictions would be far and away the best and most immediate way to help reduce these crises. The economy must open up again to allow students to continue their jobs; to receive the education they are paying for but not currently getting; and to socialise, a hugely necessary part of improving mental health. Other essential policies would be to encourage universities to better and make more accessible student services and scholarships. 

Ultimately, this is not an either/or issue. The author seems to be under the impression that to protect free speech, the government cannot focus on the mental health and the economic crises. The reality is that all these problems have been mostly ignored by the government. Now it is finally addressing a terrifying issue students have experienced for a long time. As Gavin Williamson stated: “universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views, and cultivate and open mind … but  I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.” Whether or not one supports government intervention, it absolutely has a duty to protect people’s human rights. The Conservatives are making steps in the right direction to ensure universities are a place where the liberty to express, debate, and freely challenge one another can flourish. Instead of criticising the party for this, people should focus on urging universities – with the aid of the government if required – to help struggling students to recover from the tragic impact of coronavirus restrictions.

Read the tougher legal measures to be imposed to strengthen free speech in England here.  

Olivia Groom

The views expressed in the article as the author’s own and may not reflect the values of The Liberty Club

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