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Free speech is a properly problematic area of philosophy and politics. Most Western nations accept that hate speech is not acceptable. But when does free speech become hate speech? And should we outlaw it so that it cannot get an insidious foothold in society that would allow the hatred to spread like cancer?

Do we have a demarcation problem again, whereby there is an arbitrary line between non-hate and hate? Who gets to define this line?

Recently, in both America and the UK, we have seen examples of controversial speakers have their platform removed on account that their views are too controversial or inspire hate and division at a time when we need social harmony (we always need social harmony…).

Back in 2015, before the whole Milo Yiannopoulos debacle, The Independent reported:

Research by online magazine Spiked shows 80 per cent of British universities have actively censored freedom of speech on campus. Of the 24 Russell Group institutions, ten were shown to have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, while only three were defined as having a relaxed view of censorship. This year alone, UCL controversially banned one of their own graduates, Macer Gifford, from speaking about his five-month long fight against Isis in the Middle East. Then, feminist speaker Germaine Greer was nearly banned from speaking at the University of Cardiff after thousands signed a petition to ban her for making “transphobic comments.”

Furthermore, the University of East Anglia banned a local Tex-Mex restaurant from giving out sombreros on the grounds it was “racist,” and Maryam Namazie – an Iranian-born activist who campaigns against religious laws, such as Sharia – was banned from speaking at Warwick’s students’ union and was heckled at Goldsmiths on the grounds she was being “Islamophobic” and “creating bigotry.”

Though not always banned, often those who dare to share their controversial views – such as Namazie – have been intimidated into silence. When George Lawlor wrote an article for online student paper, The Tabprotesting participation in a sexual consent workshop, he described how he was scared of going to lectures, called a racist, a misogynist, and a rapist.

The National Union of Students (NUS) – which is made up of 95 per cent of the further and higher education institutes in the UK – has banned its institutions from hosting a myriad of speakers, including those from the English Defence League (EDL), British National Party (BNP), some members of Ukip, journalist Julie Bindell, George Galloway, and comedian Dapper Laughs among others.

But in a move that is almost ironic, the Conservative government is looking to curb the freedom of universities to make decisions about who they have speaking on their campuses with a system of fines. One freedom trumps another, it seems.

The BBC reports:

Universities must protect free speech and “open minds, not close them”, the universities minister has said in a speech in Birmingham.

Jo Johnson said “no-platforming”, the policy of banning controversial speakers, is stifling debate.

From next April, a new regulator – the Office for Students – will have the power to fine universities that fail to uphold free speech.

Universities UK has said it will not allow legitimate debate to be stifled.

In his speech, Mr Johnson said: “In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.

“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions.”

“No-platforming” is the practice of banning certain groups from taking part in a debate if their views are considered to be offensive or unacceptable.

“Safe space” policies are intended to protect students from views and language they find offensive, including discrimination.

In 2016, nearly two-thirds of university students believed the National Union of Students was right to have a “no-platform” policy.

That approach means people or groups on a banned list for holding racist or fascist views are not given a platform to speak on student union premises.

The NUS official no-platform list contains six groups including the BNP and Al-Muhajiroun, but individual unions and student groups can decide their own.

At Canterbury Christ Church University, an NUS representative refused to share a platform with LGBT activist Peter Tatchell, whom she regarded as having been racist and “transphobic”.

This will no doubt open up a huge debate on the value of, and problems associated with, free speech. Everyone loves to hold up free speech as a virtue of Western democracies, but then no one likes to admit they’d give Hitler free speech rein to do his thing.

An article in The Guardian some time back pushed back against critics of those looking to give safe spaces:

Western civilisation is undergoing a transition from one set of mores to another. Just as with the shifting of tectonic plates, the process is slow and subject to much rumbling. Over the past several decades homosexuality, divorce and sex outside marriage have all become more socially acceptable; overt racism and sexism, far less so. More recently, prejudice against people whose gender expression falls outside the norm is also becoming taboo.

As far as I can see, the direction of travel is not towards a greater number of limits on behaviour, but simply to different ones. And, though there is certainly much to argue about in the detail, these limits seem in general to be more enlightened – less about controlling people, and more about protecting them – than those of the past. The reactionary right paints this shift as a kind of tyranny: the policing of thought, an attempt to curtail hitherto unfettered freedom. But they would do, wouldn’t they, because it is their moral code that is gradually being dismantled.

Yiannopoulos et al’s appeal to free speech is politically astute because it frames this struggle over values as a one-way street, with conservatives merely rushing to the defence of a noble tradition. That can be very persuasive, convincing people across the political spectrum. Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former labour secretary, took the rightwing depiction of Coulter’s cancellation at face value, calling it “a grave mistake”. “Free speech is what universities are all about,” he said. “If universities don’t do everything possible to foster and protect it, they aren’t universities. They’re playpens.”

If academic freedom and students’ exposure to a range of opinions really were imperilled by opposition to a contentious political figure, Reich’s warning would make sense. But they aren’t. The crisis of free speech is a myth that gives cover to those who are either blind to their own attempts at social control, or want to shield them from critique. Don’t fall for it.

The battle between protection and allowing a free-for-all will no doubt take up the pages of the newspapers in the UK over the next few days.

I’d love to see what conservatives would think of universities freely allowing Islamic hate speakers to peddle their destructive narratives will-nilly, with the danger of converting or up-levelling at-risk Muslims.

As a friend said to me: I’m sure Saudi Arabia has a lot more money to spend on speakers than UKIP.

What do you think?

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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