Institutional leaders of universities need to make the case for free speech, or at least not castigate and ostracise those that do. If the issue of free speech isn't tackled at universities, as students graduate the same intolerant attitudes which hinder academia will become even more widespread in broader society than they already are, argues Ollie Lane

Free speech and academic freedom are once more matters high on the list of public interest, and with good reason.

Within the last week, an open letter signed by 150 academics, writers and 'activists' was published in Harper's magazine, and expressed their concern that free speech, academic freedom and tolerance towards open debate is being eroded in favour of ideological conformity. As if to prove their point, at about the same time the letter was published historian David Starkey became an unperson for comments made during an interview, and the open letter received a barrage of criticism, condemning the condemnation of 'cancel culture'.

While the letter itself was fairly uncontroversial, and the points it made were benign to say the least, its most relevant point was on the weakness of institutional leaders, more concerned with "damage control" through "disproportionate punishment instead of considered reforms". And they're right.

Leaders within the political, economic, academic and creative spheres have abdicated their moral responsibilities towards maintaining an open public discord, to avoid the threat of negative tweets. Cancel culture and no platforming are now simply a part of life, not only in universities, but throughout society as a whole. And it's not merely targeted against those who say the wrong thing, those seen not to be advocating for the current woke cause in a sufficiently fanatical manner can find themselves facing the ire of twitter mobs too.

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Over the last few years, challenges to the limited free speech previously enjoyed in the UK may have only reflected the views of a vocal minority, but that minority have managed to create a corporate censorship which we must all now live under. The fact that anyone would dispute the idea that the UK now has a modern form of censorship to contend with is evidence of how uncontroversial it is to many of the UK's institutional leaders and so called liberals, who don't even appear to even see it as censorship. In fact, many of them see it as not only normal, but desirable, that certain views, opinions or even research can no longer be expressed publicly.

Even more Orwellian, is the fact that those very same people pushing for no platforming and censorship of thoughtcrimes they disagree with (which they have termed hate speech, in a cheap way of attempting to make what they disagree with unsayable) are the first to decry censorship as a right wing myth.

But it is this censorship, that has exacerbated a generation shift in attitudes, to a point where university students today care far less about notions of liberty, than they do about safe spaces. Recent studies have shown that as many as 40% of students at UK universities think it right to no platform conservative politicians, and more often than not it is student Unions which champion this cause, not universities themselves.

Our publicly funded universities are supposed to occupy a central role within society. Firstly, they are designed to be impartial educators of the young, and secondly they are also supposed to act as incubators for thought, to generate new ideas and to challenge conventional wisdom. They are currently failing on both of these points, and too often it is the students themselves who are to blame for this.

If the UK is to continue to call itself a free society, it needs a vibrant, intellectually curious and politically diverse academic sector at its heart, where students are exposed to new concepts and ideas, even those they may find offensive or disagreeable. If current cohorts of university students don't embrace truly liberal free speech, they will carry their positive views of censorship with them indefinitely. If the issue of free speech isn't tackled at universities, as students graduate and become embedded in other arenas of society, the same intolerant attitudes which hinder academia will become even more widespread than they already are.

Institutional leaders, especially those at universities, need to make the case for free speech, or at least not castigate and ostracise those that do.

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