Should Universities be ‘Safe Spaces’?

This guest post is a transcript of Robert Sharp’s speech at the Politics and International Relations Festival. Robert Sharp is Head of Campaigns and Communications at English PEN. Here, he discusses the ‘No Platform’policies, which seek to ban individuals from speaking at universities if their views are deemed offensive.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies.  In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution.  Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere.  Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue.  Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus?

I find this argument unconvincing. While No Platform does not activate or violate our Article 10 protections, it still violates the spirit of free speech.  It is indeed a form of censorship because, on a campus, a students’ union is a pseudo-government operating a pseudo-public space.  They are in a position of power over the rest of campus.  This is not always apparent, because student leadership on campus always includes officers tasked with caring for marginalised groups.

But are universities really public spaces?  Are they ‘free speech zones’?  Free speech advocates clearly assume so. But do the students? 

No Platform is also counter-productive, because the bad views don’t disappear.  They just go elsewhere, boosted by a frisson of the forbidden that is compelling to those who are more receptive to the speaker’s views. Milo Yiannopolis and Dapper Laughs clearly thrive on such controversy.  The fact that they are vilified in certain quarters only burnishes their brand elsewhere.

Bad views, racist views, and sexist views cannot be simply ignored.  They need to be countered and discredited. Were better to do that than at a university?  If students and academics-the cutting edge off human thought-don’t debunk bad ideas, who will?  No Platform is like fly-tipping.  The rubbish does not disappear; it just becomes someone else’s problem.

Once again, however, this argument is only persuasive if you believe that it is indeed the job of universities to test and evolve ideas, and to debunk the bad ones.  However, that is not the only conception of what higher education is for.  Many students may believe, instead, that the point of the university is simply to train them for employment.  The fact that they have to pay increasingly exorbitant fees in order to attend probably strengthens this view, at the expense of the idea that university is a broader public good.

When arguing against No Platform, free speech advocates often identify ‘offence’ as the emotion that fuels the student censors. But my sense is that, here in the UK, offence has become something of a straw-man.  Listen closely, you find that the arguments are far more subtle.

Granted, in other parts of the world, offence is still given as a reason to suppress certain types of speech.  Apologists for the illiberal lèse-majesté laws in Thailand refer explicitly to public sensibilities as a reason to criminalise insults to the King.  Countries such as Pakistan still retain strong blasphemy laws, and the arguments for retention of these prohibitions still centre on offence and insult to a something or someone that is held sacred to the majority of the people.

Offence as trigger for censorship is quite easy to argue against.  Since it’s an entirely subjective thing, it allows those who are quickest to claim offence a veto on anything they do not like.

We might also point out that offence can sometimes be very useful.  Often, the giving of offence is the only thing that can jolt people or politicians into taking note of a situation or hypocrisy.  And mocking powerful figure through offensive satire may be only way to puncture their aura of power and inevitability.

Regardless, I don’t think that ‘offence’ is at cutting edge of the debate in the UK or the USA.  The students I speak to, and those who make the case for No Platform and other innovations that seek to curb expression, do not cite offence.  Instead they cite harm and safety.


Photo from event at Leeds Beckett

When Julie Bindel makes a rude comment about transgender people, the complaint is that those words harm trans people.  Either, the words cause psychological distress, or they might even cause someone else to cause physical harm to a trans person.  Arguments against racist language or sexist language are similarly constructed.

I think the language of harm is a challenge to free speech advocates.  Most campaigners accept that when speech incites violence, then it is unacceptable and that censorship may be appropriate, and the new language of harm seems to exist in a similar conceptual space.

It seems unlikely to me that, following a Germaine Greer or a Julie Bindel event where the nature of transgender identity is debated, people actually suffer physical violence.  I may be wrong about this, but it is at least something that can be either verified or refuted.

It is much harder to refute the idea that someone is psychologically harmed, or that words contribute to an overall diminished well-being.  There is plenty of convincing testimony, if you care to look for it, of the negative effect of such speech on those who are the target of it.  Free speech advocates need a better answer than ‘you’re a special snowflake’.

My approach is to try acknowledge that the harms exist, and that negative and in some sense harmful.  But then I go on to say that the demands of a free and pluralistic society mean that free speech trumps such psychological harm, because the alternative would again mean a race to the bottom, where the person who claims psychological harm the quickest can claim for themselves the role of censor.  While I personally find this convincing, I accept that others may find it flawed.  If we really want to convince the other side, I think free speech advocates need to study and debate this terrain.

My final argument against No Platforming concerns the fact that what is considered offensive and harmful changes from year to year and country to country.  For most of our history, gay rights activists, feminists and atheists would have been No Platformed as being ‘obviously’ offensive and dangerous.  The great joy of living is a pluralistic society is that everything is open to critique, including previously settled ideas about sexuality, the role of women in society, and the divine truths of religion.  It is to the credit of those more conservative eras that people were able to voice dissent on these matters, and our society was able to evolve for the better.

Academia the perfect place for this disruption to happen.  For example, it allows people to question whether gender is fixed, or whether race is a social construct—to name just two ideas that are widely accepted by sociologists but are still working their way into wider society.

But crucially, if you let those iconoclastic ideas in, you have to let other ideas in too.  Some examples:  The role of immigration, and whether it’s a good thing for culture and economics; whether fathers are important for children; the rights of unborn children;  whether prostitution should be legal; and whether you can really call yourself a woman, when a large part of your lived experience has been as a man.

You can’t have a committee or a vote on every idea to be discussed, before it has even been discussed.    There are countries that have boards of censorship and who licence publishers, but they’re awful and they entrench the power of those at the top.  In my view, the only practical system is one where all ideas, even the offensive ones, are on the table.

Free speech advocates, for their part, need to acknowledge that this approach does mean that we are asking people to lay their identities, their core being, on the table for dissection too! If people balk at that suggestion, the response should not be to call them ‘thin-skinned’ ‘coddled’ ‘special snowflakes’.

These are argumenta ad hominem.  They attack the character of the person complaining, not the content of their complaint.  And so the actual complaint—that something is racist, or sexist, or whatever—is dismissed.

Free speech advocates of course have a right not to listen to anyone else.  We could simply claim we are right about this.  But since we spend a lot of time expecting others to listen to us, it’s not really in the spirit of the principle of free speech if we do not listen to those who complain!

It sometimes feels as though, in their rush to defend free speech, we forget why free speech is such an important virtue, which is that it enables us to hear opinions different from our own, that it enables us to change our mind.  In decrying the student censors who don’t like to hear anything that challenges them, free speech advocates often seem remarkably without empathy or interest in what those on the other side are really saying. This is a problem, because it risks turning an entire generation off the idea of free speech.

A major topic of discussion this week has been about how liberals looked down their noses at the people who ended up voting for Donald Trump. They did not properly listen to what was being said.  Students, and the wider community of those engaged in identity politics, are lumped as part of the liberal elite.  It is still deemed acceptable to dump on them: to brand students as being in an ivory tower, hermetically sealed off from the world and seeking to distance themselves further.  Students should be mindful of that danger, but there is parallel, corollary risk, which is that their views and concerns are dismissed.

If that happens, they will react in a manner that is not dissimilar to the Trump supporters.  They will forming very negative views of those who seek to criticise them without understanding them. They will retreat into their silos, while those us in the free speech crowd will retreat into ours.

Bad debates

I must express some frustration with how some free speech debates play out.

You may have read Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which is a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Douglas Hofstadter about how systems talk about themselves.  J.S. Bach’s music has variations and structure and self-referential loops; M.C. Escher’s drawings were likewise self-referential: self-portraits of the artist drawing a self-portrait; or a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand. And Gödel the mathematician proved that no formal system could talk about itself without leaving some ambiguous statements that could neither be proved nor disproved.

I often think about this when we talk about free speech.

Many arguments arise around the limits of free speech, asking ‘should this person have said this thing’ and ‘do we allow this person to say that thing’. But the argument often devolves, or loops, into a discussion of whether we have the right to pronounce on whether something can be said or not!

I say something

You say you are ‘offended’

I say that you’re being too ‘sensitive’

You say that I need to ‘check my privilege’

I say that you’re ‘weaponising your identity’

You say that I’m ‘delegitimizing’ you

Ad nauseam.
Like a game of Mornington Crescent, it’s a race to see who can reach a point of unassailable piety the quickest.


Photo of Robert Sharp

The perfect example of this phenomenon happened earlier in 2016.  Julie Bindel (or was it Germaine Greer? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter) said something rude and wrong about transgender people.  This resulted in outrage, anger, and No Platforming.  Then, however, a letter was published, signed by people like Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell, lamenting this censorious attitude.  That letter causes a backlash!  Mary Beard received hateful messages on Twitter, and the NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling even refused to share a platform with Tatchell.  When he complained about this to the Guardian, Cowling started to receive hateful message too.  People accused Peter Tatchell of using his power as a public figure to bully someone.

What was frustrating about this affair was that the entire argument took place within the liberal left, between people who are generally permissive and accepting of transgender people, even if there are some differences of opinion in what (for most people) is a relatively new intersectionality.

Meanwhile, those who think that transgendered people are mentally ill, or attention seekers, or sinners against God, were not part of the debate!  That is surely wrong and stupid, because debating those people is surely the priority for those who campaign for transgender rights.

Safe spaces

I want to address the issue of ‘safe spaces’ in particular. This is an area of debate that particularly suffers from a poor understanding of the concept. People on both sides of the argument adopt the same warped definition of the term, which they use to pursue their own agenda.

The Oxford dictionary definition is this:

A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm: Women’s refuges provided a safe space  for victims of domestic violence
Used correctly, ‘safe space’ is a term for a place where those who usually face discrimination in society can avoid the marginalisation that they usually face.  This may involve organising events to which only certain people (women, or transgender students, for example) are invited, or where certain modes of discussion are avoided.

Conceived as such, safe spaces are the exercise of our right to freedom of association. People are entitled to seek out communities where they are not subject to the day-to-day prejudice that they typically experience. Spending time in such a place (A Room Of One’s Own, even) may be precisely what is needed for full freedom of expression to flourish. In themselves, safe spaces are not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, it is a concept that can be stretched to absurdity when people seek to apply it across a large and diverse institution. After protesting that the ex-Muslim campaigner Maryam Namazie had been invited onto their campus, the Goldsmiths Islamic Society said, and I quote, that “the university should be a safe space for all our students”.  As it happens, that statement came in response to their heckling of Maryam in a way that made her feel quite unsafe!

When it comes to arguments about philosophy and religion and even identity, how can the entire university ever be a safe space? A student population of several thousand will include people who profess many different religions and world-views, many of which are inherently dismissive of, and hostile to each other.  It is impossible to prioritise the comfort and sensibilities of one group without infringing on the speech and association rights of others. A safe space policy with regards to ideas and mode of thought can be enforced in a church, or a mosque, or a synagogue… But simply cannot be enforced across an entire university. When they are, censorship is the end result.

Frustratingly, many of the recent articles that are critical of students take ‘safe space’ to mean exactly this—a campus wide ban on offensive views. ‘Universities don’t need a safe space, they need a Room 101’ said a letter writer Prospect Magazine, in April. ‘University should be an intellectual boot camp, not a nursery’. These arguments adopt the all-encompassing ‘safe space’ as a straw man that can be used to mock students. This approach dismisses the genuine concerns of marginalised groups, and comes across as highly reactionary.

Again, this is an approach that is unlikely to win converts.

Ironically, the proper use of safe space polices can enhance freedom of expression for everyone. Individuals can explore their own ideas in private without fear of harassment, while competing ideas can go head to head in the communal space. It’s a shame that misconceptions about the term have debased its value.

It is not beyond the wit of everyone involved to understand the distinction between different types of safety.  My colleagues at PEN America put it very well in their report:

Campus must be physically safe, but intellectually open.

This is not some great squaring of a circle.  To my mind, it is easy distinction to make.

The greatest threat to free speech?

It is sometimes helpful to look at the big picture. In this case, what is the overall human rights environment in the UK right now?

First, the Investigatory Powers Bill has just cleared the House of Lords.  It’s deeply illiberal and English PEN has been campaigning against it.  The new law will allow all manner of surveillance, including the bulk collection of browsing history and other meta data, with inadequate oversight from parliament and judges.  It makes legal all the privacy violations that Edward Snowden exposed in 2013.

It sets a terrible international example, and it will be abused, just as current powers that are supposed to combat terrorists are used to harass journalists, whistleblowers, and even people like Doreen Lawrence who campaign against the police or the government.

Having people read over your shoulder chills free expression!  In order to write, think speak freely we need an expectation of privacy.  This is especially true for those exploring radical politics and protest: I would not like to be in the Occupy movement right now.  They will be early targets of this kind of surveillance.

Next year, the Government will introduce a Counter Extremism Bill, despite having failed, so far, to coherently explain what ‘extremism’ is!  The government also plans to introduce a new set of civil orders for ‘extremist speech’ that operate on the civil standard of proof.  The police will be able to brand you a terrorist, which will perhaps stop you from working or from travelling abroad, all on the ‘balance of probabilities’ standard of proof.

Schools and universities already have to report suspicious behaviour and signs of radicalisation under the PREVENT strategy.  Its likely that the Counter Extremism Bill will place greater obligations on our educational institutions in this regard.

With all of this legislation—surveillance and extremism stuff—we aren’t dealing with a censure motion at the students union weekly meeting.  We aren’t even dealing with a rap on the knuckles, a written warning, or the threat of expulsion from the vice-chancellor.  We’re dealing with criminal offences, which could lead to a criminal record and time in prison.  All for speaking, writing, reading for sharing.

And the government expects your university lecturers to be complicit in this squeeze on thought.  If anything negates the idea that a university is a ‘safe space’, it’s the idea that your lecturer is legally compelled to report you to the police if they see or hear anything that they think is suspicious!

In such situations, people err on the side of caution.  They think, “It’s probably not suspicious, but I’ll report it anyway.”

This is how young men with beards who study terrorism are reported to the police: because someone spotted them reading a book that has the word ‘terrorism’ in the title.

This is how Faizah Shaheen, a young woman from Leeds going on honeymoon to Turkey, got reported to the border police by airline staff.  She was reading a book about Syrian art that had Arabic text on the cover.

This is how a Muslim kid gets reported to the police, for discussing ‘eco-terrorism’ as part of a school project.

Universities should be a space that is safe from that kind of suspicion too.

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