Freedom of Speech is the hallmark of a democratic state. It is the right to criticise, condemn, and express contrary opinions. Yet there are those who feel threatened by this, those who claim the so called “right” not to be offended, which is responsible for a growing fear of speaking out and expressing unpopular opinions.
St Andrews has not, to my knowledge, had any serious problems with no platforming or anything of that kind. Last year, Peter Singer, who has expressed controversial opinions on the rights of the disabled, was allowed to talk, while last week Richard Dawkins, known for his controversial opinions on religious, also did a talk. While it was not organised by the University, it took place on University property and there was no campaign to no platform him. Yet in July, Dawkin’s invitation to speak on the University of Berkeley’s radio was rescinded on the grounds that his views have “offended and hurt” people when it comes to religion. This remember was coming from the same campus that used be a bastion of free speech during the 1960s.
Yet if St Andrews doesn’t have a problem with no platforming, it does however have an honour code that restricts the right to free speech. As part of the Matriculation agreement that every student signs there is a clause on free speech.
It states that we have the right to freedom of speech, but it is limited by the laws of the United Kingdom and is thus not absolute. This is true, but in practice the legislation this is referring to only comes into effect with regards to the prevention of crime or on grounds of national security. It is for example illegal to plan something which risks endangering other people, or to incite others to do so. This is not in anyway a threat to university academic freedoms.
Yet right at the end of the freedom of speech section is the line, “the University expects all members of the University community to exercise the right to freedom of expression in a manner that does not bring the University or anyone connected with it into disrepute.” In 2015, Professor Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate, was forced to resign over comments he had made regarding women working in laboratories. He said, to an audience of leading female scientists, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” While the claim that women couldn’t take criticism in the laboratory was obviously false, it was meant as a joke, a bad joke, but still a joke, made all the more ironic by the fact that his wife is one of the world’s top scientists. His comment was taken out of context and lead to him being hounded out of UCL and forced to resign from the European research council. With UCL issuing a statement to remind the world that it was one of the first Universities in England at admit women. The implication was clear: Hunt had put bought UCL into disrepute and so had to go. The actions of an individual are not the same as the actions of a corporate body and There is an invisible line which cannot be crossed for fear of damaging the University’s reputation.
When we have free speech, we may say things that offend people. We may say things that challenge the orthodox view. None of us want to live in echo chambers and cut ourselves from differing opinions. Safe spaces do exactly this. It is to be expected at a meeting of the University’s Catholic society that most of the regulars believe in God, and so reading some of the less eloquent passages of the God Delusion out loud might not be appreciated.
Yet, that does not mean that they are not prepared to engage in a debate without you about why they believe in God. If the members were merely to shut down your dissent, claim that they find it offensive and that you should leave, you would be the one who has been offended. Silencing opposition doesn’t achieve anything. It just breeds resentment while leaving presuppositions unchallenged which means people will never change their views.
This is why the so called right not be offended is so dangerous. If feeds off the quasi religious doctrine of political correctness in its belief that there some things that we cannot say for fear of offending people. Things that if we were to say might be deemed as to bring the University into disrepute. By attempting to conform to what is expected of us, in the fear of voicing opinions, we do not get anywhere. If we want a safe space, it has to be one where disagreement is allowed. If people are scared to voice dissenting opinions, then we have failed.