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Westminster Blog: The right to be offended

Newbury MP Richard Benyon on free speech in universities

Richard Benyon

Reporter:

Richard Benyon

Westminster Bog: The right to be offended

At a recent question and answer session with a local sixth form, a pupil asked me: “What do you think of the state of free speech in Britain today?”

I started to answer in a general way about free speech but then moved on to what is happening in our universities.

Pent-up feelings started to flow and I suspect the passion I clearly felt started to alarm the polite, thoughtful audience.

I have long been worried about a trend in universities to prevent discussion on subjects about which some people might take offence.

It seems anyone with even vaguely controversial views on key topics is at risk of being “no-platformed” or excluded from what is rather dictatorially declared as a “safe space”. 

University is the place people should go to challenge and be challenged.

The trouble is that those who force the “safe space” concept on others go straight to the extreme end of the argument.

“So,” they say, “if campuses should be open to everyone are you saying we should have jihadist hate-preachers and neo-nazi racists giving talks?”

Just to nail this right from the start, no I am not saying that.

But such is the level of absurdity in many of our universities that it is now a crime to offend.

Germaine Greer has views on transgenderism that are strident and, in my opinion, wrong, but banning her from speaking to a university audience is daft. More than that it is dangerous.

How can you explore the intricacies of life without coming up against differing views?

Surely if being at university means anything it is about being inspired to follow beliefs by listening to people with whom you agree and disagree.

It’s about challenging and being challenged. And yes, it’s sometimes about offending or being offended.

Last week I heard from a gifted student at one of our leading universities who was removed from a class because she dared to challenge the far-left views of her lecturer. This is a new low.

It seems the lecturer had been making their political views known assuming that everyone in the class loathed the Tories too.

Being even politely challenged caused offence to the lecturer and apparently made it impossible to continue with the student remaining in the room. This is happening in universities across the country.

So, my message to the decent, polite pupil who asked me the thoughtful question was that when he goes to university he must reclaim free speech from those who are stifling it.

Make campuses places of free thought, of challenge and where opinions can be explored. End the descent into a desperately cautious, dull world where universities become just echo chambers of broadly similar and fiercely politically correct opinions.

And be ready to be offended and, if necessary, to offend.

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Article comments

  • EugeneStryker

    16/05/2018 - 13:01

    Interestingly, in July 2016 on the last day before MPs had a six week summer break the Tories tried to sneak out the fact that they were increasing University fees by £250 (amongst much more alarming reports but not related to Benyon's post). It is the height of hypocrisy to call for open and free debate at Universities and then use a 'taking out the trash day' to bury bad news impacting University students. It should not come as any surprise that Benyon speaks with a forked tongue.

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  • PaulM

    16/05/2018 - 13:01

    Richard justifying his views of universities and lecturers in particular on one anecdote is concerning. The whole point about university is that learning and research are rigorously evidence based, not based on anecdotes. An alternative explanation is that that a "right wing" student found her worldview challenged by the lecturer - Richard needs to provide a lot more explanation of the so called exclusion - in my anecdotal experience, students are only excluded for being disruptive not for having a viewpoint. If that viewpoint couldn't be supported by evidence therein may lie the problem. More shooting from the hip by Richard!

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  • NWNThatcham

    15/05/2018 - 22:10

    It's a shame you don't practice free speech, freedom of actions, at Parliament - our supposed centre of democracy. When was the last time you voted against the whip on a matter of principle that you believe in. Never. Zilch. Nada. That's why this article is titled the Bog in Westminster.

    Reply

  • NWNThatcham

    15/05/2018 - 22:10

    It's a shame you don't practice free speech, freedom of actions, at Parliament - our supposed centre of democracy. When was the last time you voted against the whip on a matter of principle that you believe in. Never. Zilch. Nada. That's why this article is titled the Bog in Westminster.

    Reply

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