Again, slightly off topic, but the issue of free speech in universities, and indeed many other public places, has become increasingly vexed over the last couple of years. I think part of the problem is that the “free speech” debate throws traditional left- and right-wingers together in ways that neither finds that comfortable. A whole lexicon has grown up around the debate over what we can or cannot say as part of legitimate debate and discussion of the world and the people around us. And whether we can wear sombreros. Words and phrases such as “safe space”, “microaggressions”, “check your privileges”, “no-platforming”, and “trigger warnings” have entered the discourse of free speech. Whilst the issues raised by speech that some find threatening or offensive have perhaps been more sharply debated in the US, in the UK similar debates are happening.
Free speech seems simple, a staple of what we in the “West” believe in. But it is not that simple, and believing in free speech, and acting as though we mean we believe in free speech, means allowing people to say things we profoundly disagree with, and would rather they did not say. The best analogy to me is that if one believes in human rights, one believes that murderers, terrorists, and criminal despots deserve the same treatment and fair trial as anyone else. In terms of free speech, Mick Hume’s “Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?” is a challenging but thought-provoking read and I would strongly recommend it (we read the abridged version), but the main point of this post is to highlight a statement Oxford University have published about free speech – I hope many universities will follow suit.
Their statement can be found here.