A student-led free speech campaign supported by counter-extremism think tank Quilliam has been launched amid what has been termed an “epidemic” of university censorship. The #Right2Debate movement urges student unions and the NUS to allow students to “challenge and moderate” controversial speakers rather than banning them, condemning the regression of many student bodies into “censorship and noplatforming”.
It comes just a few months after the release of the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) revealed there to be an “epidemic” when it comes to banning speakers that some students may find offensive. In November 2014, Union of UEA Students attracted criticism after cancelling an event due to feature Ukip Norwich South candidate Steve Emmens, following a petition signed by more than 1,150 people urging the university to stop the potential spread of his party’s divisive views on campus. UEA has since ranked ‘red’ on the FSUR’s 2016 free speech survey and according to spiked.com have: “banned and actively censored ideas on campus”.
As well as safeguarding free speech, the student-led campaign aims to transfer power back into the hands of the student body and allow them to make their own decisions. Coordinator of the FSUR rankings, Tom Slater, argued that students’ unions see students as “too vulnerable – or too easily led – to listen to difficult ideas”. #Right2Debate outlines its vision on its website to allow students to challenge and contest controversial views that do not break the law.
The campaign has raised concerns about a possible compromise of the ‘safe space’ of a university campus against offensive and hate-inciting views. Quilliam’s university outreach officer, Haydar Zaki, responded: “We cannot rely on censorship to counter intolerant views that do not break the law, but undermine the human rights of others”. The #Right2Debate movement, he argues, will protect free speech while “undermining the indoctrination that is based on divisive and intolerant narratives”.
However, UUEAS’ Welfare, Community and Diversity officer, Jo Swo, has previously argued that there is a need to carefully balance freedom of speech with the protection of individual liberties. Speaking to Concrete following the release of the Spiked free speech rankings, Swo said: “As university student bodies expand, you’ve got to realise that you can’t use the same language that was acceptable in the 60s and the 80s. We’ve evolved to the point where we recognise that as abusive and we have to prioritise protecting our students”.
She went on to argue that boycotting publications such as the Sun and the Daily Star from campus was justified due to their editorial political views: “The Sun and the Daily Mail are xenophobic, transphobic, homophobic and damaging, and they aren’t even written freely. They’re bought by the right. I think students just didn’t want that xenophobic shit on campus”.