The Case For Dissent: Shrinking Spaces For Free Speech On Campuses

The preservation of discourse at universities requires us not to speak out, but to listen

2019 Knight Foundation report reveals an alarming insight on the freedom of expression on university campuses. One of its earliest conclusions was that trust in the media among students in the United States had “fallen considerably.” Historically underrepresented groups such as racial minorities or LGTBQ+ students were understandably less enthusiastic about unrestricted free speech, which was seen as an avenue to voice bigoted views. But most crucially, 68% of all students believed that the climate of their campuses constrained freedom of expression because “students are afraid of offending their fellow classmates.” Overall, the report shows a shift from a 2016 survey by the Knight Foundation in what is considered to be acceptable levels of free speech, wherein fewer students felt this way.

Not only data, but also the views of well-established academics point to the threat of muzzled discourse. In a recently-written ‘Letter On Justice and Open Debate’, several intellectuals—notably among them Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and Salman Rushdie—have raised concerns about a rise in “ideological conformity” in “cultural institutions”. The letter elaborates on trends of “public shaming” and “ostracism” becoming increasingly prevalent, and thus sheds light on the condition of free speech in the general political climate. Most of all, this should be a cause for worry on university campuses, whose entire ethos is built upon a free exchange of ideas and vigorous engagement with opposing beliefs.

As a student, this particular issue is more pressing for me than the delivery of classes, which is more a problem of the skin than the flesh. Hate speech is not free speech. But the line between the two is being shunted dangerously close to censorship, and the point of contention today is who gets to draw this line. The reader will forgive me for citing examples primarily from universities in developed countries, where pushback to conservative views seems more prevalent, and also where most internationally reputed universities operate. India and other countries of the Global South certainly face their own problems with polarisation, but the issue of on-campus freedom of speech in North American and European universities is becoming a more concerning issue because the image of developed countries as crucibles of free debate (and other such self-congratulatory descriptions) is getting turned on its head. And remarkably, the debate in these countries seems equally stuck on petty semantics as it is on ideological middle-ground.

Several voices that address on-campus free speech issues point to Trump’s voter base (or general conservative forces) as the main faultfinders of the condition of free speech. But the blaming-Trump mindset, ironically, is itself a part of the problem. Views on this matter are being framed to counter the remarks of political opponents. Articles in the CNN, for instance, dismiss free speech concerns and attribute them to the Trump administration’s “warped” definition of them. Discourse is obstructed by the inability to divorce the objective, observable truth from the ulterior motives of a political opponent. We fall victim to our own reactionism when we allow an opposing political force to dictate the meaning of a term or concept.

A similar danger looms over campuses in the United Kingdom. Its universities’ curtailments on debate were described as “ugly and authoritarian” by Terry Phillips, the founder of the ‘No Platform’ policy for the UK’s National Students Union. The ‘No Platform’ policy was a measure used to counter the violent and fascist views of the rising National Front in the 1970s. Famously, activists from the National Front actually attacked a National Council for Civil Liberties meeting at the University of Manchester in 1975, while constantly recruiting younger members from British campuses. In the face of such disruptive forces, the ‘No Platform’ policy seems justified, and even logical.

Now Phillips has taken the contrarian view that the very same policy is being used to suppress opposing perspectives, thereby contradicting its initial purpose in a particularly hypocritical way. A report from the Index on Censorship corroborates his concerns. A startling example of this is the ‘safe space marshal’ force hired by students at King’s College, London to police events and ensure that audiences’ views are not offended by event speakers. The pendulum ironically swings to the other end, now to censor and suppress unwelcome shades of opinion.

When universities decide to take a stand on contentious issues, rather than foster a climate of healthy debate, it becomes even more problematic. After all, the mediator cannot suddenly participate in the debate herself. Universities must ensure that polarisation does not leave permanent scars on the unhindered and stimulating discourse that has characterised their campuses for so long, and which has taken many decades, if not centuries, to build up. All this is not even inclusive of the quagmire of informal political antagonisation that takes place outside of academic circles and on platforms like Twitter, which university students flock to. That, however, is much harder to regulate. Universities, on the other hand, are morally bound to sculpt and defend the space for debate; when they refuse to do so, or allow incursions into that space, we land up with the crisis at hand.

Free speech and dissent are the tools that have always been used to give a voice to the voiceless; they allow marginalised communities to challenge the status quo or the establishment. This is not an issue raised solely by the left or the right. We need to question the necessity of weaponising free speech as a means of justifying any one belief, which is in no way categorically “correct”. While freedom of speech is being used across the world to justify bigoted viewpoints, the response to them cannot be in any way dismissive or belligerent. Rather, the very same enthusiasm in using facts, logic, and moral uprightness, which has allowed so much progress in challenging racism, sexism, casteism and homophobia, must be employed to engage with them.

Sticky notions emerge—the idea that matters cannot be opined on without separating them from ideology is one such. In the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests, thousands of people on social media rightfully asked how on earth ‘Black Lives Matter’ could be a controversial statement that is fought over by political camps. This is true: how is it that the basic right to life is even being debated politically? Similarly, how can free speech and debate be restricted to one camp only?

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”—this quote is attributed to George Orwell, who was known not only for his progressive views, but also his readiness to point out ideological cant. And it is true; it is hypocritical to argue liberty for ourselves while also taking it away from others. I have seen and heard uninformed opinions and microaggressions both on and off my university campus, but it would be irresponsible and hypocritical of me to dismiss rather than attempt to engage with them, on the assumption, of course, that inappropriate views do not result in harmful actions. Though I disagree with many of my peers, shutting them out of discourse, insulting their intelligence, and worst of all, making assumptions about their general beliefs, defeats the purpose of debate. It would also be highly ironic that, as a person of colour, the same liberty that has enabled me to voice my opinion in a racially unequal world is one I could use to invalidate the views of others. Yet this appears to be the fundamental issue in political discussion, be it at dinner table conversations or televised debates, preventing any reconciliation of views, or compromise, or for that matter, discourse.

What about developing countries and their universities? In India, it is clearly the establishment that is curbing free speech. Testament to this are the numerous arrests of several Indian journalists covering the government’s response to COVID-19. So, too, is the recent Supreme Court charge against public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan for his two tweets criticising the highest judicial body of India. As a result, Indian campuses are not always “free” to become platforms for dissent, either. The same is true of various other countries with oppressive, authoritarian governments. The suppression of dissenting voices eventually becomes altogether unsurprising in most parts of the world. But in the universities of the West, such restrictions are astonishing. While Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are certainly enforcing (somewhat confused and ineffective) policy based on their political ideology, there is a large amount of successful opposition, particularly in Western media, which has brought about the rupture on these countries’ university campuses. But if governments are lulled into populist tendencies that are welcomed by the masses, then it is solely the university that is left to sift fact from fiction. And that is the role under threat today.

Critics of this essay from either side will say that the political ‘other’ is the greater danger in this equation. But this is demagoguery in true form, panic-mongering to blind people from the truth. The establishment today is perceived by the left as a historically oppressive culture, a paradigm that curtails the freedom of speech in line with its own spectrum of kosher ideas. But we must ask ourselves whether this culture remains the same or whether it is being met with a large number of opposing views, and successfully changing. We need to inquire: is this historically enabled hegemony, in fact, shifting its shape into a more inclusive discourse?

It is not progressive to swing from one form of suppression to another. Progress would be considering (and taking seriously) countless opinions and viewpoints, all the while resisting antagonisation. It appears that the question is of definition: who defines political correctness? Who defines hate speech and free speech? The answer is obviously not be easy, but the search for it is certainly cannonading the freedom of discourse from all sides. If not dealt with by universities, it will lie battered enough to be trampled upon by whomsoever pleases.

Armaan Verma

Armaan Verma is Junior Editor at ALMA MAG. He is the author of Glorious Greeks: Meet the Gods and Undoing of the Thieving King.