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Why Student Unions are Stifling Free Speech in Universities

Why Student Unions are Stifling Free Speech in Universities
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Are today’s millennials (Gen Y) becoming worryingly conformist? Should we be worried about this? Peter Tatchell, a human rights activist and the director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and Will Saunders, contributor to the website Breitbart join the programme.

To the question: are students self-censoring themselves in universities? Peter said that there is an intimidating atmosphere that exists in some universities that is leading some students to feel hesitant and reluctant to say what they really think, because they fear that they will be criticized and denounced. That is not conducive to free speech and open debate. There is also a degree of direct censorship going on as well.

John Harrison pointed out that it is not the universities themselves which are doing this, but student bodies.

Peter made the point that university bodies have sanctioned this sort of thing. For example, they might have said that university organizations must be very careful about saying things, or promoting ideas that could cause offence to other staff or students, or for example turning and looking the other way when Islamic societies insists on gender segregation at meetings.

Will noted that you also have to look at the power that Student Unions have.

“At my university, the University of Sussex, yes, it is possible to host an event outside of the auspices of the Students’ Union, but you may have to pay for the facility yourself, you may have to pay for insurance, etc., etc.., but student unions are supposed to be there to essentially allow all students air their views”.

To the question: why is this happening? Peter said that there is a perfectly natural desire that university debates take place in an atmosphere where everybody is able to speak. It is good to create a space where black students won’t be racially abused, or trans speakers won’t be ridiculed, the problem is that the way this is being enforced. Will pointed out that there is a shortage of jobs after students leave university, but this is perhaps less to do with that and to do with students being socially ostracized.

Peter said that the modern millennial generation is mostly more conformist than previous generations. There is much less questioning of authority, there are dissenting opinions, but within a very narrow framework. For example, you may have a different opinion about politics and economics, but to be accepted, it has to be within the orthodoxy. On the left of student politics there is a whole range of acceptable orthodox left wing opinions, if you step outside them, you are deemed to be a heretic. An unacceptable dissident.

To the next question: Is this a temporary measure, or has society changed, have our expectations changed? Will noted that “in theory we can go back, but in practice it is unlikely. What underlies this student self censorship is a kind of quest for identity, as opposed to other activist causes. They are not doing this for an established end, they are doing this because they enjoy the fun, they enjoy the battle. So there is not actually any kind of logical end to it. It’s not a direction I can see being halted”.

In his turn, Peter said that “one chance is that there will be a grassroots students backlash against the NUS, but the censorship agenda is so woven into the infrastructure of the Student Unions, to the extent that for the university now they regard it as essentially inevitable. They don't like the fact that it is happening. They are not prepared to put the effort in, and stand up and fight it”.

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