Oxford professor speaks out against safe spaces

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Professor Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University, has said that new Home Office legislation, as well as an overemphasis on “so-called safe spaces,” pose a threat to free speech in Britain. The new legislation, he says, would theoretically have banned nonviolent extremist speakers such as Jesus Christ from UK universities.

Speaking at the Hay Festival, sponsored by The Telegraph, on 30 May, Professor Garton Ash said that an increase in self-censorship among British students has led to an erosion of free speech. Universities must “hold the line” against the “salami slicing” of free speech, he said, pointing to the growing emphasis on safe spaces within universities, as well as the additional threat of the new Home Office legislation, which he says would likely block some of the world’s leading thinkers from speaking at universities if they were alive today.

“Some of you may know that in the new counter-terrorism legislation, the securocrats in the Home Office are trying to impose on universities a so-called prevent duty, which would call on us to prevent even non-violent extremists speaking on campus,” Professor Garton Ash told his audience at the Hay Festival.

“Now non-violent extremists? That’s Karl Marx, Rousseau, Charles Darwin, Hegel, and most clearly Jesus Christ, who was definitely a non-violent extremist. The Home Office wouldn’t want him preaching on campus.” 

“This is a real threat I think to free speech and one we have to fight back against,” the professor said, adding that Britain has become “too feeble” in its defence of that freedom.

In a statement to The Telegraph, the Home Office said: “There is no contradiction between promoting freedom of speech and taking account of the well-being of students, staff and the wider community, nor is there anything in the duty or any other aspect of Prevent which curtails genuine political debate.”

“Protecting those who are vulnerable and at risk of radicalisation is a job for all of us, and this Government is continuing to work in partnership with communities of all backgrounds to challenge those who spread hatred and intolerance.”

Professor Garton Ash, the author of a new book called Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, said that he had identified four key areas of threat to free speech in Britain. Those include an increasing fear of violence against those who chose to share their opinions, and additionally, the increasing capability of a small number of offended individuals to be able to shut debate down.

“It’s not just the state saying that’s offensive,” he said. “It’s a subjective veto act in which one person or a small group of people can say “I’m offended” and that’s held to be sufficient reason to not show that thing.”

“We have a big problem at the moment in our universities, because on the one hand we’re under attack from our government like I said. And on the other hand there’s a certain push from our own students demanding so-called safe spaces.”

Professor Garton Ash noted that when it comes to “no-platforming” a speaker like Germaine Greer, an outspoken critic of transgenderism and transgender rights, students are ultimately “censoring one another.”

“It’s not just someone like me saying “I don’t want to hear Germaine Greer,” because you don’t have to hear Germaine Greer,” he said. “What this is is actually a group of students saying to another group of students who want to hear Germaine Greer, “no, you can’t do that.””

“In my book, while we should really listen closely to our students, we have to hold that line.”

Much of Professor Garton Ash’s research has been completed in collaboration with current Oxford University graduate students. He is Director of the Free Speech Debate project, an international discussion of issues around free speech located at freespeechdebate.com.

Launched in 2011, the discussion is part of a research project at St Antony’s College, and involves graduate students from across the University who are native speakers of the 13 languages in which it is presented. The project is being digitally archived by the Bodleian Library.

The new VC of Oxford, Louise Richardson, has also  spoken out against the erosion of free speech at the University.