In The Big Debate this week, two writers debate whether a ‘free speech champion’ should be appointed by the government, or if it might cause more harm than good.
As has become increasingly prominent in the political climate of recent years, there is a growingly blurred line between ‘free speech’ and ‘hate speech’. My fear is that, by specifically promoting unrestricted freedom of speech, with punishments for those institutions deemed to be blocking it, a culture of prejudice and hate crime may begin to flourish.
Furthermore, ideas of free speech have also been seen to perpetrate a culture of fake news, particularly within the age of social media, as by allowing, in essence, a lack of restrictions on what one can say or post, it is natural that this will become a breeding ground for false information that has the ability to seriously harm society.
To state that higher education institutions need a specific role in order to ensure freedom of speech implies, in my opinion, that this freedom is not something that is readily available at current, a position that I think is untrue.
Universities around the UK are renowned for their diversity in opinion, political standing and culture.
Take the University of Sussex for example, which boasts a Conservative Society, Labour Society as well as societies for people of all different cultures and interests that, by and large, all act in harmony and with respect to each other. My fear is that, if this free speech is not deemed to be enough, then furthering it will encourage extremist or prejudiced beliefs and opinions, both on the left and right, to be bred.
We run the risk that already oppressed minorities may experience further discrimination or isolation, as the opportunity for free speech allows for a chance to actively target these groups. This oppression can occur not just within the space of societies, but also in classes through both fellow students and staff.
In a time in which minority groups are already struggling to exist in a space that is pitted against them, we should be doing all we can to support them, not furthering the risk of their isolation.
With unrestricted freedom of speech comes the risk of the spread of fake news or extremist ideology. For example, the Twitter account of previous US President Donald Trump. Although the account has now been removed, in the time of its existence it was frequently used to spread false, misleading and ultimately harmful information to millions of users under the guise of free speech.
This may be considered an extreme example but, when the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world is able to act in this manner, it sets the precedent to others that this is acceptable conduct.
By actively encouraging complete free speech, we run the risk of fostering a culture of fake news within our university community. Fake news has proven to be detrimental to our society, especially in the era of Covid-19, and I think it is of vital importance that we take every measure to prevent its spread.
The main argument for ‘free speech champions’, as reported in the Guardian, is to protect and maintain the history of the UK, with the idea that without free speech, major historical events may eventually be forgotten. However, I think this issue is often misinterpreted. It is not that we want to forget our history, but instead we simply don’t want to glorify a past that was ultimately fuelled by systematic discrimination and oppression.
In Britain, we must begin to accept that our history is built upon empire and enslavement. While this should remain a part of discussions we have today, but I think it is wrong that the motion of free speech propels us to accept things such as statues or building names that place problematic historical figures on a pedestal within our society.
History shouldn’t be forgotten but similarly, we shouldn’t be celebrating complex historical events, and my fear is that through ‘free speech champions’, the former may be encouraged.
Ultimately, I am not stating that freedom of speech is a bad thing. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs and should feel comfortable to express them. However, there is a major worry that, through ‘free speech champions’, the concept of free speech may progress into something much more harmful, cultivating ideas of oppression against minority groups and the worry of a spread in fake news. This is a state that I don’t think we should be actively encouraging.
Click here to read the ‘yes’ argument.