Snowflakes or revolutionaries? Free speech on campus
From decolonising the curriculum to gender-identity codes of conduct, free-speech controversies are a frequent feature of campus life. But while students are often lampooned as ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘snowflakes’, many believe that these students should be viewed as a radical generation of changemakers, whether championing LGBT rights or promoting racial equality. With the UK government’s new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill aiming to ensure that universities are ‘bastions of free thought and intellectual debate’, some say student concerns are being ignored and their social-justice priorities undermined. How should students view free speech? Is there a risk of creating an ‘anything goes’ campus culture that prolongs the toxic culture wars? Do such state diktats on free speech offend against the very spirit of freedom they seek to protect? How can students and universities create an atmosphere of open, critical enquiry that benefits all?
Misinformation: Ukraine, Big Tech and online censorship
As war rages in Ukraine, the limits of what we can say about such a major, epoch-defining event appear to be determined by a handful of Californian social-media giants. Facebook’s parent company, Meta has already announced the banning of Russian outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from its platforms. Twitter has declared it will ‘label all posts containing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets’. It’s not just Silicon Valley getting in on the act. Telegram, a Dubai-based messaging app created by two brothers who left Russia under pressure from President Putin, has threatened ‘to shut down channels related to the war because of rampant misinformation’.
Meanwhile, the UK government has promised a ‘crackdown’ on university lecturers accused of spreading pro-Putin propaganda on social media. More broadly, press freedom has taken a bashing recently: during the pandemic, YouTube and other sites censored TalkRadio for alleged Covid ‘misinformation’, while a recent BBC Stephen Nolan podcast revealed the extent to which Ofcom, the official broadcast regulator, was willing to silence gender-critical views labelled ‘hate speech’.
With the government’s new Online Safety Bill empowering Ofcom to further regulate online companies such as Facebook and Instagram, how worried should we be about new restrictions on free speech? In the face of fears over the online world as a space of anonymity, falsehoods, harms and excess, is it time to accept that some controls are necessary? Or should we defend the web as a space for the free flow of information and views as it was once envisaged?
Can culture survive the Culture Wars?
Culture-wars divisions increasingly frame how we judge artistic works. Statues of slave traders have been ripped from pedestals, accusations of ‘transphobia’ result in the work of artists such as Jess de Wahls being removed from galleries, while books by controversial figures such as Norman Mailer and Woody Allen are pulled from the schedules by the new cultural arbiters in publishing. Musician Nick Cave has spoken for many when he said that cancel culture has an ‘asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society’. But others ask what is wrong with assessing works in line with contemporary moral or cultural mores. Given art seeks subjective emotional responses as well as objective judgement, should we really have to contend with abusers such as R Kelly or Marilyn Manson on our airwaves, Jimmy Carr’s Holocaust joke on streaming platforms or statues of colonial supremacists in our cities – especially when, for many, they are an emotionally harmful reminder of past oppression? Are culture-war rebels right to believe that banishing controversial works will help put us on the right side of history? Or, in the name of artistic freedom, should we resist the policing of art and artists?
- Ryan Christopher director, Alliance Defending Freedom; co-founder, Humanum Institute
- Alastair Donald co-convenor Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom school
- James Harkin director, Centre for Investigative Journalism; former director, Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA); author, Cyburbia
- Phil Harrison writer; author, The First Day; filmmaker, Even Gods
- Olivia Hartley publisher, The Critic
- Ryan Hoey politics graduate; former events officer, The Literific, Queen’s University Belfast
- Jenny Holland Irish-American writer; formerly at New York Times and Conde Nast; Substack newsletter, Saving Culture (from itself)
- Inaya Folarin Iman GB News journalist; founder, The Equiano Project
- Rosemary Jenkinson short story writer, playwright and ACNI Major Artist
- Ella Whelan co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want
- Suzanne Whitten lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast; author, A Republican Theory of Free Speech: Critical Civility