The Prime Minister has hit out at “safe spaces” at universities, arguing that they stifle freedom of speech – and could damage economic development.
Theresa May said the areas, which indicate zero-tolerance against hate speech or harassment of marginalised groups such as LGBT people or ethnic minorities, were “quite extraordinary”.
She was asked about the spaces at Prime Minister’s Questions, the high-point of Britain’s political week where the PM takes questions from Members of Parliament.
Victoria Atkins, the MP Louth and Horncastle in Lincolnshire, said safe spaces stifle “lively debate” and asked the PM to condemn them.
“Freedom of speech is a fundamental British value which is undermined by so-called “safe spaces” in our universities where a sense of ridiculous entitlement by a minority of students means that their wish not to be offended shuts down debate,” the MP said.
“As students around the country return to their places of learning at the start of this academic year does the Prime Minister agree with me that university is precisely the place for lively debate and the fear of being offended must not trump freedom of speech?”
Ms May replied that she completely agreed with Ms Atkins and suggested such areas could prevent the development of Britain society and economy.
“I absolutely agree with my honorable friend. We want our universities not just to be places of learning but places where there is open debate which is challenged and people can get involved in that,” the Prime Minister replied.
“I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary, frankly. We want to see that innovation of thought taking place in our universities.
“That’s how we develop as a country, as a society, and as an economy, and I absolutely agree with my honourable friend.”
A spokesperson for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said after the exchange that it was up to universities to decide their own policies but that Mr Corbyn had been outspoken on speaking out against abuse in public debate.
Safe spaces have become a totemic political issue in the United States, where they have become associated with the separate approach of “no-platforming” of objectionable people who want to speak at universities.
Defenders of no-platforming say speakers can often find places to speak elsewhere. Defences of safe spaces say their critics tend to misunderstand what they are and conflate them with other issues.
President Obama in September last year said of no-platforming that if someone disagreed a student they should “should have an argument with them”.
“But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not, that’s not the way we learn either,” he said.
In the UK speakers such as radical feminist Germaine Greer have been uninvited from speaking at university campuses after concerns of inflammatory rhetoric against transgender people.
In November last year Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said attempted bans were part of a “worrying trend”.
“What we are beginning to witness on campuses is a more coordinated attempt by special interest groups to ensure that invited speakers with whom they disagree are shouted down and prevented from speaking,” she said.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies