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16th February 2021

Gavin Williamson is right to bolster free speech at universities

Georgia Heneage

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has introduced a flurry of legislation to bolster freedom of speech at university campuses. This spate of activity is aimed at letting academics, visiting speakers or students who are ‘no-platformed’ – those denied the right to speak – sue universities for compensation. The measures even introduce the appointment of a ‘free speech champion’ to investigate breaches.

The government’s decision has, ironically, prompted a wave of criticism – including from the Unions, who claim that there’s “no threat” of a freedom of speech crisis at universities. Williamson said that “free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely”.

The battle between free speech and students’ desire to cultivate a safe space where their set of values (increasingly polarised between the right and the left) are protected, is part of the wider culture wars which have been raging on for some time. Williamson’s decision almost seems like a logical climax to a series of broiling events: last year Oxford historian Selina Todd was excluded from speaking at an event celebrating women under pressure from trans activists because of her views on transgender rights, and around the same time Amber Rudd was denied the right to speak at Oxford half an hour before her talk was due to start- the reasons are uncertain but most people believe it was because of the part she played in the Windrush Scandal during her time as Home Secretary.

My time as a student at Oxford was marked by frequent instances of no-platforming: it was a common sight to see students protesting outside the gilded gates of the Oxford Union when a speaker whose views they deemed offensive was due to speak. This would spark heated debate amongst students about the validity of silencing opposing opinions versus the danger of platforming potentially toxic views, the conclusion usually resting on the latter, probably because of the danger that you would come across as ‘anti-this’ or ‘anti-that’.

I am a supporter of students’ right to protest, and joined a few in my time, but my views have since developed to this key point: you can hold intrinsic beliefs without shutting down the other side, and you can be a fierce feminist without denying a speaker whose views may be at odds with your values the right to share theirs.

The dominance of social media in the lives of the younger generations has engendered a dangerous echo chamber and defensiveness in debates: it has produced a culture where people are scared to offend and take offense easily; an environment in which, as New York Times journalist Jia Tolentino puts it, “the discourse of righteousness occupies far more public attention than the conditions that necessitate rightenoussness in the first place”. It’s almost as if the battle for ‘doing the right thing’ (labelled virtue signaling in some contexts) overrides the validity of a fierce (and by necessity opposing or inflammatory) argument.

These culture wars seem particularly fraught at universities because students tend to hold passionate and staunch views and collectively foster revolutionary minds. But real intellect is dependent upon having the open-mindedness to engage with opposing views: silencing them widens the toxic echo chambers which are enveloping younger generations, and risks inflaming not only our sense of self-righteousness but warping our belief in the validity of our own opinions and value judgements against others.

The cultivation of an interesting mind and of an enlightened view of the world depends upon opposition. A culture of ‘no-platforming’ rests on the false belief that to engage with a speaker whose views may be controversial, inflammatory or even just at odds with our own, is somehow synonymous with endorsing them. It might risk my being cancelled for saying it, but here goes: though Gavin Williamson has made many mistakes this past year, he is right on this.

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