Free speech at universities is more important than political correctness – yes or no?

14 Mar 2017 |

Welcome to the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 Debate Chamber. This debate will see both sides argue the importance of freedom of speech versus the right to be offended. But what case might each side make at Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai? 

Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of modern democratic nations. The right to express different points of view is particularly revered in academia, where the debating of ideas is a fundamental part of university life.

However, in multicultural societies, differing points of views can lead to clashes of opinion that cause offence.

Universities have found themselves at the centre of this tension, with academics and entertainers being refused the right to speak over fears of causing offence to various groups.

Is avoiding offence more important than protecting the right to free speech? At the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 speakers will argue for both sides of the debate. Here’s how they might go about mounting their cases.

Yes: Freedom of speech is more important than anything else

  1. “Offence” is subjective and shuts down debate

Offence is subjective, and if you ban everyone and everything that offends, you are left with very little to debate.  Activists at Wesleyan University in Connecticut trashed their student newspaper, and then pushed to get it defunded because they disagreed with an opinion article that criticised the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks participated in an event on his own campus that student protestors shut down. In the UK, more than 3,000 people signed a petition to stop renowned feminist Germaine Greer speaking at Cardiff University over fears she would offend transsexual students. Equally, freedom of speech campaigners say that the best way of dealing with offensive speakers is to challenge them, rather than shut them down. In a video in which he warns many univerities’ approach threatens a nightmare future similar to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, comedian John Cleese says he is offended by the British newspapers every day, but he wouldn’t want someone to ban them. He adds that any kind of humour is critical, and that students risk losing their sense of humour if they try to insulate themselves from offence. “With humour goes a sense of proportion, and if that goes as far as I’m concerned you are living in 1984,” he says.

  1. Challenging ideas are a necessary part of education

In a House of Lords debate on freedom of speech at UK universities, Baroness Susan Garden – a former teacher – said that views we may find offensive can sometimes prove useful in challenging our assumptions and teaches us to properly analyse then refuse or accept ideas. “If students only ever hear and discuss ideas with which they agree, their education will not have served them well,” she said.

No: People must not be allowed to use free speech to attack others

  1. Universities must be “safe spaces”

Universities are melting pots of different cultures, nationalities, religions and different sexual orientations. Students have the right to study in an environment where they feel safe and secure, and do not have to fear intimidation over any part of their identity.

Despite freedom of speech being enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, a 2015 survey by the Wall Street Journal found that 51% of US college students supported “speech codes” – rules on how students can communicate that contradict their First Amendment rights  – and just 36% were against.

Similarly, a BBC survey in 2016 found that 63% of students said that the UK the National Union of Students (NUS) was right to have a “no platforming” policy.

Originally set up in 1974 to combat racism and fascism, the no platform policy today is also used to block those speakers that student unions regard as sexist, homophobic, transphobic and religious extremists.

  1. Bullies shut down debate

The BBC survey also found that 54% of the 1,001 students asked thought the policy should be enforced against people who could be found intimidating. Those who support the NUS no-platform policy say that this point is key. They say that supporting political correctness and protecting students from offence isn’t about shutting down freedom of speech in universities; it is about protecting it. They argue that many of those who are denied a platform are bullies who refuse to consider alternative points of views. These individuals therefore threaten the legitimate debating of ideas that is such an essential part of university life.

So the answer is…

Every student ought to feel safe at university, and minorities should be free from persecution. However, every student also ought to be able freely express views and debate them without fear of censure. Universities are places of academic rigour and intellect, and these are the tools that should be used combat ideas considered offensive. Speakers should only ever be denied a platform as a last resort, either because they are proven to be inciting hatred, or if they have no interest in engaging in open debate.