Conflicts over freedom of speech on university campuses have taken centre stage in the public debate for nearly a decade now. One of the most prominent and shocking examples of campus censoriousness in Britain was the campaign of threats and intimidation towards former University of Sussex philosophy professor Kathleen Stock for her views on gender identity, which ultimately led to her resignation. This sparked widespread debate about the extent to which universities have lost touch with the importance of academic freedom and the pursuit of a rich, open intellectual life. It also bolsters the government’s argument for its freedom of speech bill.
This is why the opposition of some students to Kathleen Stock’s upcoming talk at the Oxford Union next month has been as disappointing as it is tedious. The university’s LGBTQ+ Society has demanded that the ‘trans exclusionary’ philosopher be no-platformed to protect students from her ‘campaign of hate and misinformation’. However, so far, the Oxford Union has stood firm, and it is crucial that it holds tight and defends freedom of speech on campus.
There are good reasons why this may prove a key battle in the fight for free speech on campus. Oxford, along with Cambridge, often set the tone when it comes to the ideals of intellectual life. If our most elite and prestigious universities cannot uphold foundational liberal principles, it weakens the ground for all other institutions. It is true that Oxbridge has been making progress in its commitment to encourage debate and viewpoint diversity by hosting thorny debates such as a recent Oxford Union debate on same-sex marriage. Indeed, last November Stock won a debate at the Cambridge Union arguing in favour of the motion “This house believes in the right to offend”. In many ways Cambridge has once again become a beacon of light and civility thanks to the tireless work of professors James Orr and Arif Ahmed, successfully campaigning to protect freedom of speech.
This particular case of no-platforming must also be defeated due to the intense vitriol that Kathleen Stock continues to receive – rivalled only by her fellow gender critical feminist J.K. Rowling. The venomous threats that led to her resignation from Sussex are a dark stain on the academic community’s conscience and should not be so quickly forgotten. It was astonishing that many in Kathleen’s profession defended the campaign against her, betraying how estranged they had become from basic decency and tolerance. The past cannot be changed, but in honouring their invitation the Oxford Union can continue to rebuild its honourable legacy of rigorous debate and impassioned arguments.
The fact that we are still in a cultural climate where no-platforming is commonplace highlights how questions remain over free speech. Even as the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill trundles through its final stages, we are still grappling with the question of how we revitalise the student culture and restore an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity. The worry is, however, as we become more desensitized with each cancellation, it looks ever more likely that we will have to resort to top-down enforcement of free speech rather than inculcating the true cultural shift we need.
And there is no better example of how desperately we need a shift in the student culture than the LGBTQ+ Society’s statement. This statement is a tour de force in all that is wrong with some sections of the student populace. It is chalk-full of defamatory and insulting accusations whilst still trying to play the victim. The statement claims that Oxford is ‘allowing’ the ‘transphobic’ Stock to ‘stoke fear against trans people’ whilst ‘disregarding the welfare of its LGBTQ+ members under the guise of free speech’. The guise of free speech? I’m afraid this is free speech. A differing opinion should hardly strike fear into young adults and it’s certainly not a university’s job to ensure that students do not hear opposing views; quite the opposite actually. The only route open to those Oxford students who do not wish to hear Kathleen Stock is to not attend or refine their arguments and debate her. The no-platforming call is a pre-emptive heckler’s veto; a cowardly avoidance of debate that the Union would do well to laugh off.
In this case, as in all others, we must continually make the case for free speech. In the face of never-ending attempts at cancellation that linger in the cultural milieu like a dull toothache, the trick is to not become desensitised. As a student in my final year, I have experienced the dry husk of an education that prioritises wellness over knowledge. A university is nothing without free discourse and a rich intellectual life, especially with regards to contentious subjects; a fact utterly lost on some of my fellow students.
The author is a final year student at Glasgow University.