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2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California, Berkeley, through which academics and students successfully overturned the censorious policies of university management. Against the backdrop of McCarthyism, the FSM ushered in a new era of student activism across the US and Europe, with free speech at its heart. So it is striking that today, student radicals appear to be at the forefront of calling for restrictions on what they and their fellow students are allowed to say, read and hear.
In February 2015, the online magazine spiked launched the UK’s first Free Speech University Rankings. It found that 80 per cent of universities censored speech, and that the vast majority of this was carried out by students’ unions. (The second annual rankings were launched today, and found that things were even worse, with 90 per cent of universities affected by censorship.) No Platform policies, which originally banned fascist speakers, are now used to ‘protect’ students from a wide range of controversial ideas, and not only right-wing ones; even feminist speakers have been disinvited because some students objected to their views. At the other end of the spectrum, laddish comedian Dapper Laughs was banned from Cardiff University after campaigners claimed he promoted ‘rape culture’. And in October 2014, a high-profile debate on abortion was cancelled at Christ Church, Oxford, after protesters claimed the discussion would harm the emotional wellbeing of female students and make them feel ‘unsafe’.
One former student union president has argued that while inviting speakers is not in itself an endorsement, it could be seen as ‘legitimating their views as something that’s up for discussion’. Should some issues be seen as beyond discussion, if discussing them is likely to upset students? Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students until July 2015, has declared: ‘I’m really proud that our movement takes safe spaces seriously.’ But should safety on campus really extend to protection from emotional as well as physical harm? Or should students be expected to cope with controversial ideas. Should campuses be bastions of open debate, where anything goes, or does creating ‘safe spaces’ actually allow many vulnerable students more opportunity to speak their minds? Is this trend exclusive to campus life, or are student leaders responding to a wider censorious culture? And what is the future of student politics, now that spirit of the Free Speech Movement seems a distant memory?
editor, Politics.co.uk; political editor, Erotic Review
Christina Hoff Sommers
writer and resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; host, weekly video series, The Factual Feminist
producer, broadcaster, professional dork
deputy editor, spiked; coordinator, Down With Campus Censorship!
staff writer, spiked; writer, Spectator
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