How do we reconcile freedom of speech in our universities with the desire to avoid causing offence?
One of the most burning questions in universities today is how to protect freedom of speech, without creating a platform for those who hold extreme and hateful viewpoints.
With the advent of social media, the conversation (in terms of free speech) has moved online.
In light of this, groups such Open Oxford and latterly the Young Liberal Society have been set up, ostensibly as forum to discuss issues couched in the theme of ‘free speech’.
The most prominent of these is Open Oxford. I couldn’t help wondering why Jacob Williams, the group’s founder, took the decision to set up such a forum, especially since it has often become mired in controversy, including most recently with a UKIP leadership hopeful trading blows with students.
I asked Jacob Williams why he set up the group in the first place: “At the time I set up Open Oxford,” Williams tells me, “the University was dominated by a climate of extreme intolerance and ideological conformity. It served its purpose of bringing alternative positions within the pale of conceivability.”
Clearly, the group was perceived as playing some role to advance the cause of ‘free speech’, however Williams is far less sanguine about its future: “I no longer think it’s particularly important. It’s been in decline for some time and is now basically irrelevant”.
Williams later suggested how Oxford could preserve freedom of speech: “The University should oppose and condemn all attempts to restrict or punish people for the content of their speech. It should also make the pursuit of ‘viewpoint diversity’ in all areas of its academic and political life a guiding principle”
Jacob Williams spoke frequently about what he saw as a “ruling ideology” and the role played by free speech in subjecting “a ruling ideology” to “rational critique”.
How the university can be subject to critique by an online forum is far from clear, although Williams seems optimistic about the function free speech serves in this respect.
No Offence, the magazine founded by Williams, is not short of its own controversy. Deemed ‘too offensive’ for the 2015 Fresher’s Fair by OUSU, 150 copies of it were confiscated by the Thames Valley Police, following a complaint from students.
The magazine contained a graphic description of abortion and a defence of colonialism, and is now available online.