Beware those who complain about 'no-platforming' but not draconian security measures
Safe spaces made their first ever appearance in parliament yesterday, when Tory MP Victoria Atkins asked the following at Prime Minister’s Questions:
‘Freedom of speech is a fundamental British value, which is undermined by so-called safe spaces in our universities, where a sense of righteous entitlement among a minority of students means that their wish not to be offended shuts down debate.
As students around the country return to their places of learning at the start of this new academic year, does my right honourable friend agree that university is precisely the place for lively debate, and that fear of being offended must not trump freedom of speech?’
Theresa May replied, ‘I absolutely agree with my honourable friend. We want our universities not just to be places of learning, but to be places where there can be open debate’, adding: ‘I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary’.
I’ve argued that while campus censorship is a problem, it’s wildly overstated. It’s certainly not worth a question to the Prime Minister. (Is this really the most pressing issue for Victoria Atkins’s constituents in Louth and Horncastle?)
What is a serious threat to free speech is the government’s Counter-extremism Bill, which would allow the Home Secretary to ban political groups, have police ‘disrupt’ their activities, and close down premises they use, providing their politics are considered extremist.
The bill has been criticised by parliament’s joint committee on human rights, which said in its report in July:
‘it would be deeply concerning to allow any government the power to effectively ban speech which merely has the potential to lead to harmful activity, by way of a civil order.
Such orders could be used in a profoundly illiberal way.’
Another worry is the Investigatory Powers Bill, a revamped Snoopers’ Charter that would allow bulk collection of internet data by the government. How free is your speech if the government can monitor your emails?
Of course, both of these authoritarian bills have been championed and justified by Theresa May, who now ‘absolutely agrees’ about the need to protect free speech from all-powerful university students.
Bear this in mind next time a right-wing hack tells you safe spaces, no-platforming and trigger warnings are the greatest threat to your freedoms – but who say nothing about government plans to curtail these freedoms by law.
Adam Barnett is staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.