Trigger Warning! This discussion may change your mind.
Should Universities be Intellectual ‘Safe Spaces’?
Universities are the intellectual heart of modern society. Students attend university to study, research and explore new ideas. In the faculty, students have access to some of society’s greatest experts and thinkers. Higher education benefits not only those individuals able to access it, but society as a whole. Higher education correlates with lower levels of unemployment and poverty, better health and higher levels of social and civic participation- including volunteering, voting, and blood donation.
The Magna Charta Universitatum, a document celebrating the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, was signed by 755 universities from 80 countries on 18 September 1988 and says:
“Rejecting intolerance and always open to dialogue, a university is an ideal meeting-ground for teachers capable of imparting their knowledge and well equipped to develop it by research and innovation, and for students entitled, able and willing to enrich their minds with that knowledge.”
There is, however, a growing trend among students for self-imposed censorship within university spaces. Various speakers have been ‘no platformed’ or banned by student groups, students with ‘unacceptable’ viewpoints have been censured and silenced, student events have been cancelled because of the threat of disruptive protests by those who hold different viewpoints.
In February 2015, an open letter by Beatrix Campbell condemning this type of student-imposed censorship and the restriction of free speech on campus was published in the Observer and co-signed by some of the UK’s top academics and activists including Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell. It was met with huge opposition. Many of the signatories were singled out on social media and attacked for days.
In the US, students have started insisting that not only their social spaces, but their lecture halls be “safe spaces”. Some have demanded professors provide “trigger warnings”- a notice that the content may contain writing, images or ideas which could upset or unsettle someone- on their teaching materials, including novels such as The Great Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway and Huckleberry Finn. Judging by the rise of student-led censoring and demands for ‘safe space’, UK lecturers are mere moments away from fielding similar demands from their students about the content of their courses.
Should universities give in to their students and make sure that campuses are free from intellectual challenge both inside and outside the lecture hall or do the academic faculty have a duty to students to “enrich their minds with […] knowledge”?
As universities are more and more run as businesses and students are paying for their education, is it perhaps time to ask ‘is the customer always right?’
Beatrix Campbell OBE is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, playwright and influential feminist. She was active in the Women’s Liberation Movement, a founder of Red Rag (a Marxist and feminist journal), worked for the Morning Star (formerly the Daily Worker), member of the Communist Party, and was active among the feminists who criticised the sexism of socialist and communist parties. In February 2015, she published a letter in The Observer, co-signed by prominent academics, feminists and free speech advocates, calling on universities to stand-up for freedom of speech. Afterwards, she and other signatories were subjected to harassment and abuse.
Bahar Mustafa is an elected representative of Goldsmiths University Students’ Union. A former Gender, Media and Culture graduate, she was elected for the second year running as Welfare and Diversity Officer. Bahar stood on a platform that values collective direct action as a means for those affected by class, race, and gender oppression to liberate themselves. Unapologetically feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist and revolutionary.
She argues in favour of no-platform for fascism and the merits of safer spaces as not only a set of principles but fundamental in practicing anti-oppression politics.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked, the online magazine that wants to make history as well as report it. He is also a columnist for the Big Issue and writes for the Spectator and the Telegraph. If you believe the Daily Mail, he is “one of Britain’s leading left-wing thinkers”; if you prefer to listen to the Guardian he is a “sub-Danny Dyer obnoxious intellectual wind-up merchant”. He was nominated as Columnist of the Year at the Professional Publishers Association Awards. He is, proudly, the only journalist to have written for both the Catholic Herald and Abortion Review. He doesn’t tweet.
He was invited to take part in a debate about abortion at Christ Church, Oxford in November 2014. Students protested against his participation in the debate as they said men should not be able to speak about abortion. They demanded that the event be shut down as it may have threatened the safety – “both physical and mental” – of Oxford students. O’Neill was taking the pro-choice side of the debate.
Pam Lowe is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University’s School of Languages and Social Sciences. She specialises in sexualities, feminist theory and parenting culture. Dr Lowe has recently completed a research project into student experiences of teaching and learning sensitive issues.
This event will be chaired by journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed.
UPDATE: please note that Julie Bindel can no longer speak at this event due to unforeseen circumstances.