Be it Prevent or no-platforming, attacks on academic freedom from the left and right must be resisted
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 And a mighty row erupted when the University of Cape Town rescinded (quite wrongly, in my view) a lecture invitation to Flemming Rose, the journalist who commissioned the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.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 governments 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.
One trouble with this debate is that the important and sometimes difficult balancing judgments that should be its focus are obscured by the silliness, hyperbole and hysteria that accompany it like the raucous camp followers of a medieval army. It also comes with a whole new jargon: trigger warnings, safe spaces, no-platforming,microaggressions.
And it is highly politicised. At this years Republican convention in Ohio, speaker after speaker garnered a surefire round of applause by attacking political correctness. No one had to explain what they meant: just spit out the two words and trigger the Pavlovian response.
But what might loosely be called the other side is often its own worst enemy. The New York Times recently reported a presentation to new students by the chief diversity officer at Clark University. Among her examples of microaggressions to be avoided, she included saying you guys, since the phrase could be interpreted as excluding women. One female Hispanic student, who had repeatedly committed this heinous error, commented gratefully: This helped me see that Im a microaggressor too. What a dreary, anxious, puritanical kindergarten a campus would become if students were constantly worrying whether this or thatword might cause offence to someone or other.