In recent days the news has reported that pro-life students from Exeter University have received death threats following the emergence of an online petition calling for Exeter Students for Life to be disbanded. The Exeter University in response says it supports freedom of speech. However, this case is not an anomaly. The issue was brought to the forefront of politics earlier this year when the former Education Minister Gavin Williamson announced a policy paper ‘to stamp out unlawful “silencing” on campuses’.
The inherent value in freedom of expression is well established, and at the core it underpins our democratic society. University students have struggled to enjoy their Article 10 (freedom of expression) protections on campus. The rise of intolerance has stifled debate, and the institutions which express strong sentiments for free speech rarely put such support into practice. Undoubtedly, cognitive minorities feel unable to express their views as freely as they would like to on campus. The socio-emotional impact, such as stigma and slander, can often be enough to deter many students from engaging in any form of discussion.
It would be worth remembering our universities have a long and rich history of being places where students and academics can think and express themselves freely. In his classic work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill noted; ‘Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field’. Mill’s is pointing to the idea that university is a place whose very purpose depends on heated discussion. A meaningful clash of ideas. Perhaps, this highlights a great irony in the fact universities have in recent years become a difficult place for students who diverge from ‘mainstream’ thinking. Universities would do well to create a safe but critical space for debate.
Indeed, in this particular case the online petition highlighted ‘university must be a safe space for healthy debate…’ but the petition also noted that ‘it is especially alarming when this society has adopted such a controversial and harmful point of view, a view which is a direct attack on women’s rights’. This is a concerning narrative of how our ‘modern’ society practices tolerance, providing no space for those who they disagree with. The group claim that the pro-life society are ‘attacking women’s rights’ when perhaps a reasonable discussion would reveal that the students wish the best for both woman and baby.
It’s clear the latest developments at Exeter University are a worrying trend, but one that will continue unless addressed.