Why have so many students given up on free speech?

The study shows that 41 percent of students agree that academics who teach material that offends students should be fired, while 39 percent agree that student unions should ban speakers who cause offense.

It’s not hard to figure out what these 41 percent of college students might find offensive. It will be the usual litany of heresies – from criticizing Islam or abortion too harshly to defending Israel or the British Empire too vigorously. Even at British universities, gender-critical feminists are considered exaggerated. In fact, the Cambridge Students’ Union website even advises students to stay away from these “TERFs” as they appear to harbor a “deep hatred of trans women”.

But attack cuts both ways. You can guarantee that even the most progressive and fashionable views will offend someone somewhere. What Muslims take offense at Charlie Hebdowhich Christians alike can stumble upon life of brian. If women’s rights groups take offense at strong pro-life stances, supporters of the Down Syndrome Association may likewise take offense at strong pro-choice stances.

So if the 41 percent had their way and every objectionable lecturer was fired, all sorts of views could end up being silenced. The result would somehow be both appallingly censored and terribly desolate. There would be nothing more to say. University courses would be as harmless as three years of uninterrupted instruction in fire safety regulations – and about as interesting, too.

Nonetheless, there are some encouraging results from the King’s College London survey, particularly in relation to the Government’s forthcoming Higher Education (Free Speech) Act. This bill, currently in committee in the House of Lords, commits universities and student organizations to protecting and promoting freedom of expression.

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While a large (and unfortunately influential) minority appears to be actively opposed to free speech, a majority of students actually support the bill. Even better, the more respondents hear about the bill, the more likely they are to support it. This shows that many students are at least recognizing that there is a free speech crisis on campus.

The government’s Freedom of Speech Act alone will not be enough to turn things around. Students who realize there is a problem need to raise their voice. And those who work at universities also have to wake up and smell the coffee. You must remember that freedom of expression is at the core of the work of the university. And they have to start fighting back from within.

The Policy Institute report shows the urgency of the situation. The students who are going through college today will one day rule the country. And far too many of them think it’s okay to fire faculty for being abusive. If things don’t change soon, Britain risks losing freedom of expression – the most precious freedom we’ve ever had.

Arif Ahmed is Lecturer in Philosophy at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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