Are Universities Promoting a ‘Safe Space’ by Undermining Free Speech?

If you have a Twitter account and have any interest in politics, it is very likely that you saw the story of Lincoln University and their Student Union. For those unfamiliar, it started when Lincoln’s Conservative society reposted a study showing that their University is in the ‘red zone’ when it comes to promoting free speech. From what we know so far, this is all that happened. A simple repost. The Student Union acted in a way that they deemed appropriate and suspended all social media accounts held by the society… ironic, isn’t it? In order to deny the accusations that the University is intolerant of free speech, they have not only proved the study right but have united young conservatives across the country.

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Twitter was sent into a frenzy last night with Lincoln University being the target. This was not just a squabble between local politically engaged individuals and the University – it became a national issue. Karl McCartney, Lincoln’s Conservative MP, tweeted last night that the University and the Student Union should be ashamed of themselves and that the University hierarchy must deal with the situation appropriately. Executive Editor of ConservativeHome, Mark Wallace, said that the young Conservatives of Lincoln have been ‘silenced’ in the name of free speech. Durham University’s president, Tom Harwood, demanded that the NUS condemn the actions of Lincoln’s Student Union but we are still waiting upon an official comment. Lead Brexiteer and Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, weighed in on the issue by tweeting the story to his 100,000 devoted followers – if the story was initially under the radar, it isn’t anymore.

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Whenever the terms right wing and left wing come up in conversation or debate the first thing that comes to people’s minds are the extremes. Just because you identify as left wing, it does not make you Vladimir Lenin nor does it make you some form of fascist if you claim to be right wing. However, this consensus exists! The whole point of holding talks at university is to hear opinions across the spectrum, it does not mean you have to agree with them but a university should encourage you to listen. However, in recent years, universities and free speech have not been given the best press coverage. This is due to some cases of censorship and the fact that students are becoming more naturally left wing creating a political bubble over campuses. It seems in the modern era, that right wing speakers or views have been instrumental in bursting that bubble – this is seen by the actions of certain universities in the past and now of Lincoln suspending their Conservative Society.

As a student myself, this story was of an obvious interest to me and close to my heart. Universities are not only just a place of learning, they are place to build relationships and form opinions. However, in recent years, universities have come under fire from the right side of the political spectrum. There seems to be a consensus across the whole country that universities are naturally subjective to left wing politics. Recently in America, former Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos was met with riots when he tried to give a talk at Berkeley College, which resulted in President Trump threatening to withdraw funding and $100,000 worth of damage. Obviously, Yiannopoulos is an example of far right politics and boasts of being a ‘provocateur’ but the principle remains the same. When someone is invited to talk at your university, it is not an endorsement by that university nor is the university forcing you to agree with that person’s views. As I mentioned earlier, universities are a place of learning and forming beliefs – hearing views from politically different people is an excellent opportunity to develop yourself as an academic.

The study which found Lincoln University to be a restrictive institution has been endorsed by the Telegraph and has found its way to the forefront of political news. With 90% of universities restricting free speech in some form, it is worrying times for the future of the country. A coordinator at FSUR (Free Speech University Rankings), Tom Slater, has accused universities of ‘systematically’ censoring speech on campuses. Furthermore, Slater stated that although Student Unions deserve most of the ‘flak’ they get, the role of the university itself could not be ignored; ‘universities often share and affirm their illiberal, patronising outlook.’ The idea of social justice and PC culture has been often criticised for limiting views and creating a negative learning environment with a majority of student being labelled as a ‘snowflake generation’. For example, at the University of Derby, UKIP have been banned as they hold ‘extremist views’ with their justification being that students have a right to ‘feel safe’. Even George Galloway is banned from the University of Chester!

When you first walk into university, one of the first things that they encourage you to do is to form relationships and opinions – being a politics student, I know this all too well. However, for universities to ban or censor speeches or any other form of expression is hypocrisy and to an extent irony as well. Universities want to encourage a ‘safe space’ for students, but banning – or in the case of Lincoln – suspending social media accounts, does the complete opposite. In fact, it creates a divide and hostility amongst fellow students. Students who associate with a particular political wing or party may feel intimidated to express their views. Due to the recent studies and the events of Lincoln yesterday, universities are sure to be bombarded by questions on this issue.

It is clear that universities are now in serious hot water over the issue of free speech. During my time at university, I have not felt as if my views or anyone’s have been oppressed despite my University’s student union being in the ‘red zone’. However, this may not be the case everywhere and the actions of Lincoln University have only heated the argument further and brought it to the forefront of British culture and politics.

If you are a student, see where your university ranks here.


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