Should universities invite “radical speakers” on campus?

Yay- Alfie Turner

In the past few months Queen Mary has been criticised by the government for giving the floor to “extremist” speakers. According to the Prime Minister ‘Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds’. But the growing tendency of placing pressure on universities to shut down debate, encouraging more bans on speakers and no-platforming, will have precisely the opposite effect.

We are corroding the culture and nature of what a university should be. A university is not a church, a university is not a political stump, it is a place in which ideas should move freely and be challenged constantly. If somebody offers a “radical” opinion, a university is a place in which that opinion can be discussed, challenged or ridiculed. The government has a very dim view of university students if it thinks we all believe that 100% of everything we hear in a lecture, seminar or discussion with other students is sacrosanct.

The issue of what or who constitutes a “radical” speaker is the problem. Last November Maryam Namazie, an ex-muslim feminist and human-rights activist, gave a talk at Goldsmiths University for the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society on blasphemy and apostasy. At the event, members of the university’s ISOC disrupted the event; shouting through the lecture and, at one point, pulling the power from her presentation. Namazie refused to be intimidated and leave, challenging members of the audience and completing the event. Goldsmiths Feminists Society later released a statement, seen as offering solidarity to ISOC on the grounds that Namazie was an “islamophobe” and that such people should be banned from universities. The idea that a student feels strongly about a religion or a belief, so much that another person should be banned from offering their own, sometimes opposing, opinion is insane. Similar attempts have been made to ban politicians, public figures and even comedians from speaking at universities. If I believe strongly that football is an offensive subject for conversation and nobody should be able to mention it, should I have the right to silence others from speaking about it? Of course I shouldn’t.

I would argue that major moments of historic progress; democracy, the civil rights movement in America, the legalisation of same sex love and marriage; all were won by language in places where people were free to stand up and speak about ideas and issues.

If the government thinks it can cushion young people from ideas by preventing discussion of them, it will have the opposite effect. The real world is not a place in which you can neutralize all opinion by banning it and if you stop universities and schools from talking about important and difficult issues, young people will simply find other avenues to explore these issues, the growth of online radicalization being a case in point. Freedom of expression can hurt us, but it is a hard-fought right that has given us a great deal of liberty. We would be foolish to offer it the knife, especially on our universities.

Nay- Nour Kobayter

On-going debates around whether or not universities should invite radical speakers to speak on campus events have opened up the debate on freedom of speech. Whilst freedom of speech remains to be an essential right for individuals to have, there needs to be a line demarcating when this speech becomes hateful and dangerous. Although I acknowledge that we all have different perspectives, views and values, universities should not openly be prepared to offend a multitude of people at the expense of furthering a particular society’s agenda. Freedom of speech can be a slippery slope to racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, and religious fundamentalism. The line between hate speech and an open discussion on viewpoints remains blurred when speakers such as Germaine Greer and her problematic views towards transgender people are allowed to be put forward in a public discussion. Universities continuously champion their position as arenas where people can be themselves, and be able to associate with whomever they choose. If they also allow speakers capable of preaching ideas that can cause considerable harm, they should be able to acknowledge the risk of possibly alienating a part of their student body.

The University of Cardiff had initially invited Greer to host a talk about feminism and society. Greer has been hailed as one of the most important contemporary feminist thinkers yet she has received much criticism over her comments about transgender women. To offer a summary of her views on transgender people, Greer believes that trans women are men because they “don’t look like women”. In other words, if you don’t look like a woman or if you don’t menstruate, you cannot be a woman. Not only is this extremely transphobic and offensive, it just simply doesn’t make any sense. Allowing Greer to portray a transphobic and transmisogynistic point of view at an open platform at a university perpetuates a dangerous atmosphere of intolerance, discrimination and further marginalises trans people. In this case, putting speakers like Greer on a ‘no platform’ not only makes sense, but is thoroughly encouraged.

If banning Greer does not convince you, then consider the current members of University “No Platform”. The National Union of Students (NUS) compiled a list of organisations they deem too radical and hate-filled to be allowed to speak at University events. Members include the BNP, EDL and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. These organisations not only harbour harmful and controversial opinions that preach hatred, exclusion and violence, but they perpetuate a notion of cultural incompatibility and go against the very foundations of a tolerant and multicultural society. If speakers from these organisations and other controversial thinkers are allowed to speak at universities, are we prepared to deal with the consequences of perpetuating hatred, intolerance and discrimination?

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