Here's why you shouldn't be outraged when you hear that over 60 per cent of UK universities 'severely restrict' free speech

Ours is a generation that believes that the liberty of the oppressed must be protected: we say No Platform for fascists as we have a duty to protect democracy from those who would use it to destroy it

Malia Bouattia
Tuesday 14 February 2017 17:17 GMT
Malia Bouattia is the President of the NUS
Malia Bouattia is the President of the NUS (PA)

Over the weekend Spiked released the 2017 edition of its annual “Free Speech University Rankings” – with the headline figure being that over 63.5 per cent of universities supposedly place "severe restrictions" upon free speech.

The rankings themselves are as absurd as they are flawed. It seems that for our industrious guardians of free expression, restrictions are of notably less concern when they are placed upon Muslim students.

Among all the furore, it is worth remembering that research conducted by ChangeSU showed that not a single speaker from the 50 universities surveyed has been banned from a students’ union organised event during the last year. Being not invited, is of course, not the same as being banned or a subject to a “No Platform” policy – otherwise I have been banned from the Norfolk Ornithologists Association my entire life.

According to a particular logic, I should take this as a calculated affront to my personal liberty.

Although it’s important to recognise that there is a serious issue around the civil liberties of students and staff on campus, Spiked’s analysis of policies, which act as supportive and preventative tools against discrimination, misses the mark.

There is a pervasive narrative that our generation cannot engage with disagreeable opinions. We are, after all, the snowflake generation: insulating ourselves in our university bubbles, unable to face the harsh realities of the “real world”.

We are simultaneously fragile, yet seemingly terrifying to some.

That is because, contrary to commonly held opinion, my generation are not interested in suppressing free expression, we are interested in extending it.

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To put it simply, we believe that freedom of expression is a universal right. This means that it belongs to all. However we also acknowledge that in a deeply divided society, not everyone possesses those rights simply by virtue of their existence.

It should be obvious that a young, black, working class student from inner London does not have a voice as loud as say, Tom Slater, the deputy editor of Spiked. Safe spaces are not used on all campuses, but where they are it is to amplify the voices of those who are struggling to be heard. It is about empowering them with their own freedom of expression.

Donald Trump has one of the loudest voices of all, yet routinely uses it to slander Hispanic people through vicious stereotypes – where are their rights to free expression?

It has become a cliché that speech has consequences, but the truth is that when Donald Trump uses those tropes, he is deliberately generating a culture of fear and intolerance to those communities. Hateful speech leads to hateful actions, and we have seen in this country how the vitriolic anti-migrant rhetoric deployed in the EU referendum campaign has led to a genuine rise in race-motivated assaults.

Free expression is not and has never been limitless.

The liberal thinker John Locke states that there are three natural rights, and included in these is that of liberty. And in order for liberty to exist universally and equally, it is imperative that we are protected from other who might seek to restrict ours. For what use is the claim that freedom is universal, if the privileged can use theirs to restrict the liberty of others?

Thus engaging in a civil society requires us to sacrifice some of our rights, so that the rights of all can be protected. We can deploy our freedom of expression through debate, but not if it violates another natural right: freedom from injury, harm or oppression.

Ours is a generation that believes that the liberty of the oppressed must be protected: we say No Platform for fascists as we have a duty to protect democracy from those who would use it to destroy it. But we are not content to preserve what we have: we seek to challenge the inequalities that allow some people to use their voice to suppress that of others.

This is a frightening idea to the privileged and those in powerful positions those who would claim a monopoly on freedom.

Freedom of speech was originally conceived as a radical demand: it is time that we reclaim it. To demand free expression for the powerless, the marginalised, the voiceless.

So whilst the likes of Spiked lament the fall of a great tradition they neither represent nor understand, students will be out in the “Real World”: building a movement that can offer a beacon of hope in the darkness and secure the freedoms of all.

Malia Bouattia is the President of the National Union of Students

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