Safe spaces are not the only threat to free speech

Sep 16, 2016

By Timothy Garton Ash

Universities should be safe spaces – safe spaces for free speech. When I started working on freedom of expression some years ago, I never imagined that threats to it in the university itself would become such a hot topic. But today, a great debate about this is echoing across the English-speaking world.

The dean of students at the University of Chicago recently wrote to inform all new students that: “We do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” And a mighty row erupted when the University of Cape Town rescinded (quite wrongly, in my view) a lecture invitation to Flemming Rose, the journalist who commissioned the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.

On Wednesday, the prime minister, Theresa May, condemned the idea of safe spaces in answer to a parliamentary question. Yet the main reason British universities have been wrestling with the issue of free speech is the duty imposed on them by the government’s counter-terrorism legislation Prevent – introduced by the Home Office while she was home secretary, which in its outrageous original version asked academics to be spies on, and censors of, even non-violent “extremism” (never properly defined). So she May be for free speech, or May be not.


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6 comments on “Safe spaces are not the only threat to free speech

  • We must breed in our young tolerance (but not acceptance!). Others are always a burden, but they most often bring us moments of our own growth rather than do the members of our own comfy cohort.

    On warnings about literature. Don’t give the shock away!!! That is often the point. Say something may be shocking to some at some point. But what would a specific a warning do?? Most likely stop the timid reading at that moment.



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  • Ironically, the father of modern student movements on the international stage was the Free Speech Movement (FSM) initiated at the University of California at Berkley in 1963-1964 with the purpose of organizing students to overturn an administration ban on political or social activism on campus enforced under the cold war
    fear of communist indoctrination. The movement succeeded beyond the protesters’ wildest imagination.
    Campuses became hotbeds of student activism worldwide, notably in the U.S. for civil rights causes and anti-Vietnam war protests. As a corollary, not without unintended longer-range consequences, students (like “workers”) demanded a greater role in the decision making process for administration policy and programs over the hiring of “minority” faculty, the admission of “minority” students, financial disinvestment in the South African apartheid regime, assorted boycotts, and so on.

    After political correctness and leftest ideologies hardened over several decades among administration, faculty and students into concrete rightspeak, the howls of overheated imagination combined with immature mind that is Youth have taken us to the absurd confrontations we are witnessing today. Thank God (evolution) for the aging process. Those whose motto was “don’t trust anyone over 30” back in 1964 have all died of old age, a lesson that the teen and 20-something hysterics trying to shout down Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be wise to ponder.



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  • I think such restrictions on free expression are precisely what the latest bullies on the block, the Jihadists, want, and we’re doing their dirty work for them.

    I also think that choosing to subject ideas to open scrutiny shows courage of conviction.

    So, why pray, hide your prophets away? I would have thought that if they have veracity you’d be only too keen to let others enjoy the fruits of their thoughts and labours.

    But no, as soon as questions are posed you get all shouty; I wonder why!

    Jack up open fora, don’t allow them to be buried by the aforesaid bone-heads.



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  • Safe spaces are not the only threat to free speech

    The notion that because someone will decide to “be offended” by criticism of their irrational views, will throw a temper tantrum, and turn violent, in anyway justifies protecting irrational views from criticism, is just plain stupid in any organisation or culture which values honesty, truth, or evidence-based thinking!



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  • 5
    Pinball1970 says:

    @4The notion that because someone will decide to “be offended” by criticism of their irrational views, will throw a temper tantrum, and turn violent, in anyway justifies protecting irrational views from criticism, is just plain stupid in any organisation or culture which values honesty, truth, or evidence-based thinking!

    I am hoping people who are pushing this nonsense this will look back very soon with a good deal of embarrassment.



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  • @ Pinball1970:
    I am hoping people who are pushing this nonsense this will look back very soon with a good deal of embarrassment.

    Your hopes are well matched to the craziness of most youth movements. As minds mature
    with age and perspective, aging “youth” will become incredulous that they ever thought or acted “that way.”

    Bear in mind that these young people have succumbed to the coming-of-age delusion that the old[er] generations have been corrupted hopelessly by either selling out or co-optation. Those entering adolescence or young adulthood remain pure in mind and body and thereby obligated to usher in the New Age by cleansing society of oppression and injustice. They don the mantle of revolutionaries with a Utopian mission.

    Almost comically in current times, they have reduced the struggle for social justice to a shouting match devoid of clear serious goals. Some, especially young women, have fallen under the spell of third-wave feminism impassioned with the hysteria of “rape culture” and inordinate concerns for the fortunes of white middle class women while others have drifted into the gassy irrelevance of “ant-racist” mobs like the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Generally, the attempt to silence speech perceived to constitute an imminent threat to the safety of Social Justice Orthodoxy incoherently expressed, is an attempt to purify the collective mind in strict compliance with fiercely politicized ideology.



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