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In favour of Jo Johnson’s reforms

[hr gap=”null”]This holiday, Jo Johnson implemented reforms to the university system that have been labelled as the biggest in 25 years. Amongst these was the creation of the new Office for Students – which will regulate university outcomes, chiefly, free speech. There will be measures to stop universities ‘no-platforming’ speakers with the aim to create a free speaking environment.

Frankly, it’s about time. Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle of a free society, yet it has been severely under attack in years gone by, particularily in universities; the very places for open, intellectual debate. In contrast, universities seem to be full of pathetic cry-babies that need to be wrapped up in cotton wool, cocooned in an artificial bubble where they’re always right, everyone else is wrong and theyíll likely throw a tantrum if they don’t get their own way.

This has gotten so bad that Spiked!s annual free speech ratings in 2017 revealed that 63.5 percent of universities now actively censor speech. If mob-rule becomes the default and is enabled to reign supreme on university campuses of all places, then it’s not an education you’re receiving, it’s an indoctrination.

Amongst the plans to enforce free speech are fines for those universities who fail to uphold the basic right of their students to open discussion, and no-platform speakers when cry-babies throw a temper tantrum en masse. Whether or not these reforms actually help free speech, however, rests on whether or not these sanctions are implemented properly and fairly and not just dished out as token gestures. Should this happen, we may actually see a restoration in freedom of speech across universities; fines are bad for business, and since bad press may very well put prospective students off applying to the sanctioned university in question, it is thus in the universities’ interests to actually protect freedom of speech, and treat their students like the adults they are, not like the three-year olds some of them act like.

In recent years, student unions and campaigners have banned, or attempted to ban, a number of high-profile people from speaking at universities because of their controversial opinions.

In one of the most infamous cases, feminist writer Germaine Greer risked being unable to give a lecture after Rachael Melhuish, women’s officer at Cardiff University, called for her to be no-platformed for her ‘transphobic’ views. Nor are they the only ones who ban unpopular opinions; UEA decided to move a UKIP event off campus following a petition a few years ago; King’s College London revoked a speaking invitation to the then-Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, after he made deeply inappropriate remarks about President Barack Obama’s ancestry. With the sheer scale of the attack on free speech in universities, one can only hope that these fines get dished out fast, and the more costly they are, the better.

Newsflash: unpopular opinions are still free speech, and you don’t have a right not to be offended. Get over it!

Correction: A previous version of this article, published 16/01/2-18, stated that “UEA SU voted to No Platform a UKIP speaker”. The incident in question referred to a 2014 decision by the SU to postpone a talk by UKIP’s Douglas Cardwell and move the rescheduled event to the city, following a student petition. There was no vote prior to this decision. 

16/01/2018

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patrickwiseman