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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Censorship that undermines free speech and academic standards

In my day university students attended college to learn in an atmosphere of vigorous debate and challenge. There were some who sought to close down discussions by labelling certain views as offensive or politically incorrect, but by-and-large they were ignored so that we could have a proper debate on the issues.

If you cannot have that sort of freedom in an academic institution then where can you? It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes suppress certain art forms, burn 'seditious' books and seek to restrict religious worship. They feel the need to control people and their views for their own security and longevity.

So, what is the excuse given by various student unions and student leaders, who have uninvited speakers and censored views they consider to be 'unsafe' or offensive? How can they justify living in a free, democratic country, studying in an academic institution and yet seek to close down discussions, debate and alternative views?

Many, as in this case at Oxford's Balliol College, claim that they are protecting other vulnerable students, ignoring the fact that those students have come to college to learn and be challenged as well. If you can't deal with a few allegedly bigoted people at university, then how are you going to manage in the real world? We enter education to prepare us for a life after it, not to be cossetted.

Frankly, the organiser of Balliol's Freshers' Fair argument that Christianity’s historic use as “an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism” means that students might feel “unwelcome” in their new college justifies denying the Christian Union a stall, is nonsense.

As Dr Joanna Williams, a university lecturer and author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, says: “It is intolerance being exercised in the name of inclusion.” The Spanish Inquisition would have rewarded such an approach.

The fact that the situation has now been resolved in favour of the CU is encouraging but the attitude and beliefs that led to the ban in the first place remains prevalent in many institutions. That approach is a threat to our democratic rights and should be resisted.
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