These responses were received from a limited number–35–of contributors. A wider survey would be needed to assess the level of confidence in freedom of speech at universities amongst the student body as a whole. The forum was open for four weeks. Most were standalone comments, including some with a great deal of detail, whereas some contributors commented on each other’s posts to challenge their perspectives.
Regarding free speech in general, there was almost unanimous agreement that it is of huge importance. Most contributors said that any lawful speech should be allowed because: it is fundamental freedom; it helps to expand our understanding of each other; and it helps to expose and undermine extreme views. One contributor said that free speech should be an absolute right, suggesting that there should be no legal bounds.
Specifically, regarding free speech at universities, many contributors commented on the role of free speech in helping students to develop and learn. Some noted that hearing opposing views, including in teaching sessions and at student events, is an important part of the university educational experience and helps to prepare students for the harsher world beyond university. Some stated that shielding students from unpleasant views will leave them weak or ignorant. However, some contributors challenged the notion that all free speech is necessary and helpful for students: some questioned why university groups should have to host speakers whose views are unwanted in wider society; and one supported inhibiting certain unpleasant views on the grounds that some listeners accept them despite contrary evidence.
Contributors also commented on potentially negative impacts of free speech, and gave a wide range of views about whether free speech should be traded off against other rights and considerations. Contributors touched on two types of issue: when speech might directly affect the people that it comments on; and when speech might lead listeners to adopt particular views against others.
Some suggested that free speech should be bounded naturally by people acting in a civil and considerate manner. Some went further, saying that free speech should be inhibited if it causes offense or harm especially to people who are particularly sensitive to certain criticisms. One contributor discussed the merits of “safe spaces” for the specific purpose of helping students who had experienced trauma, as opposed to wider applications.
For others, free speech is paramount and should never be inhibited by someone else’s desire to not be offended (which some viewed as too weak a reason) nor by the aim of avoiding harassment (which some viewed as too subjective a measure). Indeed, one contributor posed the question of whether it is discriminatory to inhibit someone’s freedom of speech.
Published: 27 March 2018 by authority of the House of Commons and House of Lords