MPs and Peers have said that universities cannot be “safe spaces” from the free exchange of ideas, warning that university “red tape” and students’ attempts to shut down debate they oppose was leaving a “chilling effect” on free speech.
Calling freedom of speech at universities “vital”, chairman of the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights Harriet Harman MP said that evidence “showed that there is a problem of inhibition of free speech in universities” and called for the defence of “freedom of expression”.
The report, published Tuesday, found that there were “serious barriers” limiting free speech on campus, including “intolerant attitudes” of student groups using the banner of “no platforming” and “safe-space” policies to shut down free speech; “unacceptable intimidation” by protestors; and “unnecessary bureaucracy” put on groups organising speaking events.
The report found that most “flashpoint” topics which triggered protests for censorship included pro-life debate, Israel, “transgender issues”, and right- and left-wing politics.
On the matter of intimidation, the report called masked protest, intimidatory filming, or physical disruption “unacceptable” and said that it must be stopped.
Student Union President Facing Impeachment for Pro-Life Views
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) October 12, 2017
“The right to protest does not extend to stopping events entirely. Intimidating people exercising their free speech rights is particularly deplorable when meetings are invaded by masked protestors seeking to intimidate,” the report said.
Two of the UK’s recent, high-profile attacks on free speech on campus involved physically aggressive, masked leftists.
In February, Brexiteer and grassroots favourite to take on the leadership of the Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg was interrupted by masked leftists who shouted “no platform for racists”, “Nazi scum”, and “fascist” as he attempted to give a speech at the University of West England in Bristol.
Then in March, masked Antifa (self-described “anti-fascist”) activists used fire alarms, smoke bombs, and loudhailers to disrupt the King’s College London Libertarian Society lecture, which featured Ayn Rand Institute director and author Dr. Yaron Brook, and YouTube personality “classical liberal” Sargon of Akkad, the leftists shouting “no fascists on campus” and “no free speech for the Alt-Rights”.
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) February 3, 2018
On the matter of “safe spaces”, groups including pro-life campaigners told the human rights committee that student unions “were making arbitrary decisions about the views to which students should be exposed”.
Remarking that universities should be places of “open and uncensored debate” where “a range of opinions should be heard and explored”, the report notes that “the concept of safe spaces is either too broad or very vague and therefore we do not find it helpful”.
The Universities Minister Sam Gyimah also warned of a “creeping culture of censorship” on university campuses, and slammed universities for their “self-censorship”.
“If what you’re doing is essentially mollycoddling someone from opinions and views that they might find offensive, then that is wrong,” said Mr. Gyimah.
The Charity Commission also came in for criticism for the “restrictive” advice it provides to student unions, which it regulates as registered charities. The report said that the Commission “encourages unions to take a risk-averse approach when hosting events involving ‘controversial’ external speakers” and recommended it review its guidelines.
WATCH: Masked Antifa Attack Student Free Speech Event, Injure and Vandalise https://t.co/km9gqSslEF
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) March 6, 2018
The National Union of Students (NUS), a confederation of around 600 UK university students’ unions, said the report showed that concerns around free speech on campus were “much ado about nothing”.
“We are delighted to see the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) inquiry into free speech at universities has uncovered what most of us knew all along: that there is no crisis of student censorship on campuses,” the NUS spokesman said.
Spiked Online’s 2018 Free Speech University rankings found that 55 per cent of the 115 universities and students’ unions surveyed are ranked “Red” under the website’s traffic-light rankings system, meaning they “actively censor speech and ideas”.
“For the fourth year running, students’ unions are far more likely to be ranked Red than universities,” the pro-liberty publication found.