Student-led #Right2Debate campaign calls for universities to ‘challenge’, not ban, controversial speakers

Movement will ensure universities are able to display 'a rich tapestry of ideas' while also challenging extremism

Aftab Ali
Student Editor
Friday 26 February 2016 17:58
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Maryam Namazie, secularist and human rights activist, pictured, is just one of many speakers to have been banned recently from speaking at a university for fear she may have 'incited hatred'
Maryam Namazie, secularist and human rights activist, pictured, is just one of many speakers to have been banned recently from speaking at a university for fear she may have 'incited hatred'

A campaign which seeks to protect free speech at Britain’s universities by allowing students to “challenge and moderate” controversial speakers instead of banning them has been launched amid “an epidemic” of campus censorship.

The student-led team behind #Right2Debate - in association with counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam - said censorship in institutions across the nation is starting to shape students’ union (SU) policies, further undermining some of the fundamental elements of university life including the right to engage, attend constructive debates, and “express oneself freely” as a student.

Therefore, #Right2Debate said it is calling on SUs, the National Union of Students (NUS) - as well as other bodies - to put into place its policies, highlighting a procedure for concerns to be raised by SUs and groups about a speaker who may be attacking the values of “mutual tolerance and respect.”

“This campaign, however, places the onus on the right to debate, as opposed to no-platforming, as a means to counter speakers who propagate divisive and intolerant narratives,” outlines the movement’s site.

As well as safeguarding free speech and the right to debate within universities, the team says, overall, the campaign is aiming to transfer power into the hands of the student community, and the wider public, and give students the power to “effectively challenge extremist narratives.”

Quilliam’s university outreach officer, Haydar Zaki, said: “We cannot rely on censorship to counter intolerant views that do not break the law, but undermine the human rights of others. These views can make student communities feel unsafe and they must be challenged.”

#Right2Debate, he added, is campaigning for the protection of free speech by contesting these views using “opposing speakers and other opinions, undermining the indoctrination that is based on divisive and intolerant narratives.”

The campaign’s policy advisor, Alastair Cole, described how #Right2Debate will ensure the university environment can continue to display “a rich tapestry of ideas” while also challenging extremism on campus.

He said: “Providing a balanced, open approach for contesting extremist ideologies is a vital part of this campaign.”

The announcement of the campaign has come just shortly after spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) revealed there to be “an epidemic” when it comes to the stifling of free speech at the UK’s universities.

The key findings from FSUR’s data showed that SUs are four times more likely to put bans in place on campus than the universities themselves.

Tom Slater, coordinator of the rankings, described how universities are meant to be spaces reserved for “unfettered debate and the pursuit of truth.” However, he added: “Today, in a time when campus bureaucrats see students as too vulnerable - or too easily led - to listen to difficult ideas, the entire purpose of the academy is being undermined, and the bar for censorship is only getting lower.

“Today, students aren’t even trusted to dress themselves, let alone think for themselves.”

To support the #Right2Debate movement, please visit Change.org to sign the petition

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