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Westminster Blog: Freedom to speak

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Newbury MP Richard Benyon on political correctness and freedom of expression

Seven priests went into a bar… This may sound like the start of a (bad) joke until you read on and discover that they did not actually get to go in because the doorman of the City Arms in Cardiff thought they were on a stag do. All was amicably resolved in the end when the manager realised they were genuine and gave them free pints all round.

I have a certain sympathy with the doorman but the story also illustrates something a little darker. I’m thinking of the issue of political correctness linked to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

I have written before about the effect of social media in public life, the perceived ‘right’ to express your personal opinion, whether it is based on truth or lie simply because it’s your view. It is a very small step for this, in turn, to become a ‘right’ not to be offended.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson set this particular hare running back in March when he wrote to universities saying that they would be compelled to include a clear commitment to freedom of speech in their governance documents to counter the culture of censorship and so-called safe spaces.

The concept of safe spaces and no platform movements have swept across campuses, including the campaign to ban Germaine Greer from giving a speech after her allegedly “offensive” comments about transgender people.

At the other end of the scale, it appears that even some innocuous fancy dress outfits have been banned by student unions, along with terms such as “gentleman’s agreement” and “mankind” in case they cause offence.

But students are also the victims here. Censorship has steadily increased at universities, with 94 per cent of campuses having some restrictions on freedom of expression, up from 90 per cent last year and 80 per cent in 2015.

In a letter to The Times last week, Baroness Deech, former principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, said, “Freedom of speech within the law should be protected, especially in universities. Yet the university authorities are complicit in allowing the free exchange of ideas to be closed down.”

She goes on to say that students too have become ever more censorious. “They claim a right not to be offended, but we cannot secure freedom of expression if we all also maintain a right not to be offended.” She challenges Vice Chancellors to respond.

In the interests of those British freedoms which have made us the envy of the world for so long, perhaps we should all wake up and be prepared to take up that challenge.

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