Free speech is the inevitable victim of our attempts to prevent individuals from being offended, writes Ben Rochelle. 
Britain is referred to as the home of free speech, fair debate and common sense. But looking at the news these days we may be inclined to think otherwise.
Last week a debate organised by an Oxford University pro-life student group was cancelled after student activists expressed outrage at the motion, “This House believes Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all”.

Christ Church, Oxford, retracted permission to host the debate, which was due to feature two prominent journalists speaking for and against the motion. One of the students demanding that the debate be shut down argued in The Independent: “The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups.”

Earlier this year Ukip was banned from speaking to students at Derby Student Union because of its “extremist views.” And a Nietzsche reading group was banned by University College London’s students’ union on the grounds that it was promoting “a far right ideology” at the university.

It is true that a world in which we enjoy free speech is often filled with ugly, difficult and hurtful ideas. But freedom of speech, if it is any freedom at all, must encompass the freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom. As part of this it must accommodate for the dissenting opinion, the unpleasant belief and what others might consider an uncomfortable truth. Universities, of all places, should realise this.

We might not like what someone says. We might take offence. But lively debate and a robust exchange of ideas are integral parts of a true democracy.

Lord Justice Sedley, in his landmark ruling in the case of Richmond-Bate, put it better than anybody. He said: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

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