University safe spaces could be having ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, MPs warn

University safe spaces could be having ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, MPs warn
Universities should reconsider the idea of ‘safe spaces’ because of the “chilling effect” they could have on freedom of expression, MPs have warned.

A parliamentary committee expressed serious concerns over higher education safe space policies, aimed at preventing controversial speakers from having a platform for fear their speeches may be offensive.

The Committee on Human Rights, chaired by former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, found that while there is no “wholesale censorship,” certain tactics to prevent controversial figures from sharing their opinions could have serious repercussions. “Safe spaces cannot cover the whole of the university or university life without impinging on right to free speech,” the report said.

“The concept of safe spaces is either too broad or very vague and therefore we do not find it helpful. University is an environment where a range of opinions should be heard and explored. Minority views should not be barred from student union premises.”

It added that while it has not found, contrary to media suggestions, an issue of “wholesale censorship,” there are “real problems” which could discourage people from “putting up challenging events.”

“Whilst most student union officers who responded to our survey [comprising 33 responses in all] say they are confident that they and their companions can speak freely, such disincentives could be having a wider chilling effect, which is hard to measure,” the report said.

The report comes amid a string of no-platforming protests levelled at those across the political spectrum. LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was kept from giving a speech at Canterbury Christ Church University amid allegations he held “racist” and “transphobic” views. Julie Bindel, writer and the co-founder of Justice for Women and a radical feminist, was also banned from speaking at the University of Manchester Students’ Union in October 2015 as students said her views on transgender people could "incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students.”

Most recently, King’s College London made headlines after a group of masked activists stormed an event where Carl Benjamin was appearing. Benjamin, who goes by the online moniker of ‘Sargon of Akkad,’ has been described by various outlets as a member of the so-called ‘alt-right.’ 

READ MORE: ‘Mini police state’: Students’ union employs ‘safe space marshals’ to control debates

In regards to such disruptions, the report said: "The right to protest does not extend to stopping events entirely. Intimidating people exercising their free speech rights is particularly deplorable when meetings are invaded by masked protesters seeking to intimidate.”

Harman said evidence shows free speech may also be hindered by university bureaucracy. “While media reporting has focused on students inhibiting free speech – and in our report we urge universities to take action to prevent that – free speech is also inhibited by university bureaucracy and restrictive guidance from the Charity Commission," she added.

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