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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Is freedom of speech more important than political correctness?

An academic institution should be a hotbed of ideas and discussion. The freedom to express and debate an opinion or a thesis is central to the process of learning and research. The freedom to offend is central to our democratic process. Clearly there are limits, but they should be defined in the law of the land.

What is not acceptable in my view is to ban a speech, presentation, or publication because a person or group of people find it offensive. The appropriate response to is engage with the argument and put across alternative viewpoints.

These principles are well-known and have been used by governments and indeed, by those who seek to practise censorship elsewhere, to rebut the actions of undemocratic governments, extreme religious movements and others when they have sought to limit freedom of expression and protest.

Unfortunately, you cannot pick and choose when to apply these principles. They are universal and go to the heart of our unwritten constitution and indeed, the written constitutions of other countries such as the USA.

That has not stopped a new trend emerging on UK university campuses of groups seeking to restrict the freedoms of others. The Western Mail reports that university student unions in Wales have banned the sale of certain newspapers and magazines from their campuses.

They say that Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Swansea University unions are among 32 in the UK who have banned the sale of certain publications, which include The Sun, Daily Star and Daily Express - unpleasant but hardly extreme publications.

They add that Cardiff University faced controversy last year after a gig by Dapper Laughs was cancelled due to a campaign orchestrated by students who called him “sexist and inappropriate”. In addition students also tried to cancel a Germaine Greer speech at the university because of her previous comments on the transgender community.

A spokesperson for Swansea students union is quoted as defending the decisions taken in that particular institution. They say:

"The policy we implemented was a democratic decision voted on by the student body regarding the products they wished us to stock.

"The union is against the objectification of any group of people. We note that many magazines which may have fallen under such a ban have since ceased to exist and the marketplace has changed.

"We fundamentally believe in the right of students to collectively take a view on the products and services they wish to see in their community and strive to ensure this can continue to be the case. We also believe that stocking them may now not be a commercially viable decision."

The students union is of course entitled to take such a view and to seek to convert others to it. Indeed I agree with them on the fundamental issue. However, putting commercial matters to one side, they are not entitled to prevent others engaging with the people or publications they are opposed to. And the fact that there has been a democratic vote does not justify such a fundamental breach of somebody else's' rights.

Banning something because you disagree with it is an easy answer, it is very rarely the right one. I have no problem with political correctness, but I do have a problem with it being imposed on others. Such censorshp has no place in a democratic society.

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