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 And a mighty row erupted when the University of Cape Town rescinded (quite wrongly, in my view) a lecture invitation to Flemming Rose, the journalist who commissioned the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.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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