Editorial 206: In defense of free speech, even at its most offensive

Universities have always played a critical role shaping students’ ideological views, but the nature of this influence has recently become the subject of heated debate.
Increasingly, on once liberal college campuses across the US, trigger warnings and political correctness are now the norm, and UK schools are embracing similarly protective measures. In an educational environment where some views are encouraged and others shunned at the risk of offending peers, where does one draw the line? What constitutes a valid exercise of free speech as opposed to a hateful view that affects others’ well-being?
The speakers invited to the University by the Students for Life Society serve as the perfect case study for the aforementioned question. In their speeches, as well as various past comments, these men and women espoused views that The Saint finds utterly abhorrent.
For example, Clare Bremner of the Abortion Recovery and Care Helpline said she opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. John Deighan, Chief Executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in Scotland, advocated the criminalisation of abortion and said that calls for greater LGBT+ rights are “often an attack on traditional sexual morals in our society.”
These comments represent an outdated, damaging outlook on LGBT+ and women’s reproductive rights. We are lucky enough to live in a country where women have control over their own bodies and individuals are allowed to marry whom they choose regardless of their gender. Restrictions on individual freedom are bound to fail; as Feminist Society co-coordinator Jo Boon points out in The Saint’s article on the matter, abortions will happen whether they are legal or not.
However, we now ask you to reread the previous sentence: “restrictions on individual freedom are bound to fail.” As a student newspaper, we are dedicated to the exercise of free press and free speech. This means that no matter how much we disagree with an individual’s point of view, we stand by their right to share it at the University. We also, however, stand by the rights of others to thoroughly dissect every distasteful comment made. As former principal Louise Richardson once said, “Education is not meant to be comfortable. Education should be about confronting ideas you find really objectionable.”
University provides us the opportunity to surround ourselves with thousands of peers whose perspectives may be completely anathematic to ours. Rather than shunning these views (unless, of course, they pose a threat to well-being), we should endeavour to seek them out.
Debating subjects we think we are well-versed on has the ability to make us realize that we may have been missing a side of the story. The opinions we have now are not the ones we will have forever. The beauty of conversation is that once you realise your convictions are wrong, you can change your mind. Other times, debates will only reinforce our convictions.
Regardless of the outcome, exposure to different points of view deepens our understanding of the topic discussed. So, why don’t you bring up Brexit to your borderline xenophobic friend? Better yet, ask that Trump supporter what he thinks of the Donald’s latest racist/sexist/homophobic escapades. It might be uncomfortable at the time, but in the end you’ll be glad you both have the right to share your thoughts.


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