Theresa May has criticised “extraordinary” safe-spaces in British universities, those that are designed to protect people from offence in debate and conversation.

So-called safe-spaces conceptualise the protection of students and other young or vulnerable people from offence in debate.

The Prime Minister voiced her criticisms during the first Prime Minister’s Questions since the summer recess, stating that universities should be “not just places of learning, but places where there can be open debate which is challenged.”

The issue was introduced to the Commons by Victoria Atkins, Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle, who suggested that safe-spaces were the product of “righteous entitlement” among students and posed a threat to the “fundamental British value” of freedom of speech.

May went on to say that the continuation of the safe-spaces ideal and the restriction of discussion could damage social and economic growth. The PM “want[s] to see that innovation of thought is taking place in our universities… that is how we develop as a country, a society and as an economy.”

Responding to the comments made by the Prime Minister and her fellow Member of Parliament, UEASU Campaigns and Democracy Officer Amy Rust disputed the PM, suggesting that safe-spaces protect, rather than hinder, open debate and free speech, and asserted that the principle will continue to be protected at UEA.

“We agree with the government that universities should be a place where there can be open debate which students can get involved in. In our view, safe space policies protect that goal by making sure that people feel that they can take part in SU activity without, for example, fear of having to deal with racism or homophobia. The House of Commons wouldn’t put up with MPs wearing Nazi imagery or bullying or harassment and nor should students in their own SU.”

 

Comment: Tom Sellars calls on universities to stand up for free speech

Theresa May’s critique was not only an accurate assessment of the ludicrous concept of “safe-spaces,” but was also a welcome intervention.

Whilst it is vital to defend minority groups against any form of discrimination, safe spaces are the most illiberal method of achieving this. The very concept is in direct contravention of the core principle of liberalism: freedom of speech. Fear of offending individuals should not be a justification for censoring that fundamental right to freedom.

Universities are the home of education, of learning, and of reason. Safe spaces are censoring debate for fear of offence. The only way progress for minority rights will be achieved is through the changing of hearts and minds. Universities should be leading the charge in changing minds, but that involves free and open debate, without censorship of any kind.

By suppressing debate in places of learning safe spaces are preventing the necessary debates from taking place. A reassertion of this core value must be reiterated, and restored, if universities such as UEA want to continue to be the bastions of free thought, ideas, and progress.