Student Authoritarians: Stop Telling Us What to Think

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Student Authoritarians: Stop Telling Us What to Think

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Student Authoritarians: Stop Telling Us What to Think

The Joint Select Committee on Human Rights has launched an inquiry into freedom of speech in universities, and they want written submissions.

CitizenGO has been following the decline of freedom of speech at universities and in wider society closely for the last few years. We’ve even written a few petitions on it and have been supportive of Jo Johnson MP’s efforts to ensure that free speech remains free at university.

This petitions details the CitizenGO response to the Joint Committeee.

It lists just a few of the instances of the suppression of speech at university; discusses some of the ambiguity and inconsistency in current free speech legislation; discusses the patronising and authoritarian nature of attempts to undermine free speech; and highlights those topics which are most frequently supressed – critical discussion of LGBT ideology, of abortion and of Islam.

There’s far more to say than can be said here and you’re welcome to write your own reply and your own concerns to the Committee.

The deadline for submissions is the 20th December, so make sure you sign now.

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/human-rights-committee/news-parliament-2017/freedom-of-speech-uni-launch-17-19/

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Written Submission: Is Government policy on free speech in universities coherent?

Dear Sir or Madam,

CitizenGO is pleased to see this inquiry into the state of free speech at British universities, and hope that an honest and fair look at the evidence will make the extent of the problem clear.

There is a significant problem of free speech at universities in this country and it is evident that this problem is political as it is only certain ideas and topics which are routinely shut down.

It is a poor indictment of our universities that the state is considering stepping in to ensure that speech remains free.

In particular, issues surrounding LGBT ideology, abortion and Islam are extremely difficult to discuss openly and honestly at universities (and in wider society) without encountering significant resistance – often in the form of outright censorship – from other students, frequently in collusion with Students’ Unions.

Evidence of the problem:

1. In November 2014, a pro-life student group in the University of Oxford, Oxford Student’s For Life (OSFL), attempted to host a debate on abortion between journalists Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill. The debate was shut down after a mob of 300 students threatened to “disrupt” the event.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11239437/Oxford-students-shut-d...

Three years later, in November 2017, OSFL once again faced a mob of students as they tried to discuss the repeal of the 8th Amendment in Ireland. Police had to be called to ensure the event continued.

http://oxfordstudent.com/2017/11/02/womcam-protesters-try-shut-anti-abor...

2. Strathclyde University Students’ Association prevented a university pro-life group from affiliating with the university, on the grounds that this would be a violation of the university’s “safe space”. This prevents the student group from accessing university rooms and property for their events.

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/university-of-strathclyde-student-...

3. Julie Bindel has been “no platformed” by the NUS for a number of years for her views on transgenderism and was prevented from speaking at Manchester University in October 2015.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36101423

And both Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell, although they were able to speak at the respective events to which they were invited, encountered significant opposition.

This is a more subtle threat to freedom of speech as it sends a clear message to others who might want to speak about this topic. If speakers with credentials like Greer and Tatchell are submitted to such opposition and media attention, it will be so much worse for lesser known speakers and students who might wish to discuss ideas critical of LGBT ideology.

4. University of Sussex Students’ Union (USSU) has a specific language policy which requires students to use ideology language which they may reject. It is a forced speech code.

https://www.sussexstudent.com/democracy/policies/gender-inclusive-language/

5. A student, Felix Ngole, has been removed from his university course for expressing his views about same-sex marriage online. As with the above, whilst this is a personal injustice for Mr Ngole, the message for everyone else is loud and clear: opposition to same-sex marriage can/will be punished.

This last case shows that it is not only Students’ Unions which are guilty of stifling speech and discussion but also university administrators.

These cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

***

In regard to the particular questions asked by this committee, Government policy on free speech may or may not be coherent depending upon how it is interpreted.

As you will be aware, the university has an obligation under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 Section 4 to ensure “that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with— (a)the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or (b)the policy or objectives of that body.”

This should be a clear and strong law in defence of speech at universities. However, as the Government’s Statutory duty makes clear, there are limits to the protection of speech which are (perhaps intentionally) extremely ill-defined, if defined at all. The elasticity of words ensures that more and more speech is no longer required to be protected by the university.

The “boundaries” on free speech are variously listed as incitement to terrorism, crime and violence; public safety; and a duty to stop radicalisation and discrimination. As indicated however, all of these terms are becoming increasingly unclear.

To take one example, a simple google will reveal the extent to which it is now being argued that “mis-gendering” is violence. i.e. it is being claimed that (intentionally) referring to someone by a pronoun that he/she does not believe conforms to his/her “gender” is an act of violence. Presumably then, as this interpretation of “violence” gains traction, such violent speech will no longer be tolerated.

***

There appears to be some confusion about the purpose/value of free speech. When a speaker is “no platformed” or is unable to speak due to the actions of Students’ Unions, whilst the speaker is indeed deprived of his/her right to speech, it is the students who wanted to hear what he/she has to say, who are truly wronged.

It is a spurious argument indeed to suggest they are “private bodies” who have a right to refuse speakers. In reality, speakers are invited by a student or student organisation, then the Students’ Union, acting as a public body, for the good of the student community as they see it, decide that other students should not hear the views of the speaker or shouldn’t engage in a particular argument.

In essence, Students’ Unions are acting as moral arbiters deciding that other students are too delicate or too easily manipulated and therefore cannot/should not hear different ideas. This is as patronising and is it authoritarian.

It is neither the job of Students’ Unions nor the state to enforce a particular world view through its policing of language. This is a deeply illiberal and totalitarian action.

Under the aforementioned Education Act, university administrators and authorities must ensure that student free speech and discussion is permitted on campus, and only restricted in the most extreme of circumstances, such as incitement to imminent violence.

***

An honest look will show the extent to which conservative ideas are routinely suppressed. This is done through explicit means, where events are simply not permitted to happen; through enforced speech codes which are becoming increasingly common (see the USSU Gender Neutral Language Policy); and pressure brought to bear on students and invited speakers on certain topics, which fosters an atmosphere of silence and intimidation.

This is not simply a problem at universities but in wider society, and, as at university, it is focused around any critical discussion of Islam, LGBT ideology and abortion.

The immediate causes of this appear to be an increasingly militant, dogmatic, intolerant and authoritarian ideology popular among some students. This ideology appears to focus heavily on the grievances of (perceived) victims. For example, students who shut down abortion discussion frequently say the discussion of it, is an attack on “a woman’s right to choose”. Of course, whether or not such rights exist is precisely what is under contention.

Again, critical discussion of LGBT issues is more or less forbidden as this is perceived as an attack on people who identify as LGBT. Of course, no such attack on persons need be intended. Rather, critical discussion of LGBT issues typically involves discussion of ideology associated with the political LGBT movement.

In both these instances, discussion is shut down because we are told that attacking an ideology is to attack a person. Charitably understood, this is a confusion which equates people and ideas, and mistakenly views attacking ideas as attacking people, and therefore, in an effort to protect people, certain ideas are not permitted. Despite the apparent good intentions, this ideology has a chilling effect on speech.

Less charitably understood, shutting down discussion of ideas by claiming that this is an attack on individuals is a deliberate and conscious attempt to silence one’s political opponents.

Either way, the result is the same: students are routinely silenced/intimidated into silence by a militant, dogmatic, intolerant and authoritarian ideology frequently found in Students’ Unions (and increasingly common in other areas of society).

After having investigated this problem for the last few years in CitizenGO and having spoken with individuals affected by campus censorship, it is clear that this is a serious problem.

Those who hold minority political views should be free to express them particularly at university and university authorities should be held responsible to ensure that this happens. The state should only interfere in these matters in the interest of protecting speech. And that intervention is sorely needed at this time.

Sincerely,
[Your Name]

Student Authoritarians: Stop Telling Us What to Think

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010,000
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6,413 people have signed. Help us reach 10,000 signatures.