‘Will we allow a great university to be brought to its knees by a noisy, dissident minority? Will we meet their neurotic vulgarities with vacillation and weakness, or will we tell those entrusted with administering the university we expect them to enforce a code based on decency, common sense and dedication to the high and noble purpose of the university?’
That was Ronald Reagan, as governor of California in the 1960s. He wasn’t arguing for free speech on campus; in fact, he was railing against the agitators at Berkeley. But while Reagan’s sermons might seem a strange choice for making the libertarian case against censorship today, the underlying problem is the same.
Unrepresentative and often subversively-minded activists have been given too much power, and as well as spoiling the intellectual and cultural experience for their peers, they are having a much broader detrimental effect. Consider the indoctrinated views of the younger generation towards freedom of speech (Right-wing bigotry), wearing a poppy (militarist if not racist) and sexual identity (criticism of transgenderism is hate crime). This can no longer be dismissed as a passing phase in the formative years of young adulthood: censorship is a cancer metastasising throughout society and its institutions.
In the past few days, three incidents demonstrate the severity of puritanism on campus. The front page of the Times (17 October) reported that an event at King’s College London was attended by five ‘safe space marshals’, aptly dressed all in black. Speaking to the Conservative Association was Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the student union was clearly concerned that this Right-wing imperialist and anti-abortionist would say something offensive (meaning conservative). Rees-Mogg highlighted the somewhat sinister presence of these officers in the hall, encouraging the audience to enjoy the liberty afforded by our society. But students feared that anything they said could get them into trouble. The university assured the Times that it defends freedom of speech, but how does this square with the student union policing? Hearing that the marshals were paid £12 per hour, history student Greg Hall asked why ‘we are subsidising intolerance’.
Then to Sussex University, where Ukip MEP Bill Etheridge was invited by politics students to address a recently formed free speech society on the subject of liberty. He was deemed ‘high risk’ despite being a regular speaker at universities. The student union insisted that Etheridge submit his speech for screening to ensure compliance with ‘safe spaces’ policy. He had entered Richard Littlejohn’s ‘you couldn’t make it up’ territory. The event was cancelled, but the defiant Etheridge pledges to proceed anyway, ‘even if I have to stand outside with a loudspeaker’.
That’s exactly what Peter Hitchens did, also at an event organised by politics students (memo to student unions: the very essence of politics is debate). The student union at Liverpool University demanded that Hitchens not only provide a copy of his speech in advance, but also answer a series of questions about his well-known views on marriage and drug abuse. They were no match for the titan of punditry. Hitchens refused to kowtow to the petty commissars, instead speaking for an hour and a half from a soapbox in Hope Street, gaining much respect from the crowd of 70 students.
Some students are rebelling against the censors and trying hard to reinvigorate debate. Their universities aren’t doing much to support them, instead making them feel marginalised and vulnerable by issuing propaganda for the identity politics that stifles diversity of opinion. The academic environment, I fear, is regressing to the medieval strictures of scholasticism and persecution of heretics. What a poor role model our campuses have become for the many Chinese students here, who must wonder what is so free about the West. The communist leaders in Beijing have nothing to fear from the multitude of returning graduates, for whom censorship has been internationally normalised.
Universities minister Jo Johnson has been making the right noises about tackling this problem in universities. But he needs to follow words with action. To protect our time-honoured principle of free speech, its cultural Marxist suppressors must be legally curtailed. Don’t tolerate intolerance.