Prime minister opposes 'safe spaces' for student debate

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has criticised the use of 'safe spaces' for debate in universities, which are intended to ensure discussion does not cause offence to students, saying that they hold back innovation and harm the country.

Victoria Atkins, the Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle, raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons last week. She said: “Freedom of speech is a fundamental British value which is undermined by so-called 'safe spaces' in our universities where a sense of righteous entitlement by a minority of students means that their wish not to be offended shuts down debate.”

She asked the prime minister whether, as the country returned to its places of learning, she agreed that the university is “precisely the place for lively debate and the fear of being offended must not trump freedom of speech”.

Theresa May said everybody is finding the concept of safe spaces “quite extraordinary, frankly”.

“We want our universities not just to be places of learning, but to be places where there can be open debate which is challenged,” she said.

“We want to see that innovation of thoughts is taking place in our universities. That’s how we develop as a society and as an economy,” she said.

In December a group of leading academics warned in a letter to The Telegraph that UK universities were stifling free speech by banning anything that caused offence to others.

They criticised the “small but vocal minority of student activists” arguing for universities to be turned into “safe spaces”, describing it as “an attempt to immunise academic life from the intellectual challenge of debating conflicting views”.

Safe spaces have been introduced by some student unions and societies and are defined by the Safe Space Network as “a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability”.

Other policies potentially curbing free speech include 'no platforming', which is the denial of speaking time to speakers with controversial or extreme views, and prohibition of controversial art or music.

Malia Bouattia, president of the National Union of Students or NUS, has argued that a safe space can be anything from a Facebook group to an email thread or a physical space where people who are victims of a particular form of oppression can come together and talk about the issues.

She said earlier this year that the current definition of free speech is flawed because it belongs to those who are most powerful. “No platforming and safe spaces enable the application of free speech.”

But no platforming and safe space policies have proved controversial.

Feminist writer Julie Bindel, for example, was banned from speaking at Manchester University's student union last October as students said her views on transgender people could "incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students".

Chief executive for HOPE not Hate, Nick Lowles, an anti-racism and anti-fascism campaigner, who supported the Kurdish fight against ISIS, was reportedly “no platformed” by the NUS in February on the grounds that he was seen to be “Islamaphobic”.

An invitation to Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, to King’s College London was withdrawn after he made “inappropriate” remarks about US President Barack Obama’s Kenyan ancestry.

Support for limits on free speech

A survey of more than 1,000 full-time UK undergraduates published in May by the Higher Education Policy Institute, an independent think tank, found that 60% of students think universities should never limit free speech but there was also significant support for strict limits on free speech on campus.

Some 76% expressed support for the National Union of Students’ no platform policy; 68% supported having trigger warnings, in which lecturers warn students in advance of teaching difficult issues in case they wish to leave; and 48% of students (55% of women and 39% of men) thought universities should be safe spaces where debate takes place within specific guidelines.

In addition, 52% thought it reasonable for universities to work with the police and security services to identify students at risk of succumbing to terrorism.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and author of the report on the survey, said: “These are inherently complicated issues but the pendulum may have swung too far away from favouring free speech. The soft support for freedom on campus challenges many of the core tenets of academia, such as the view that universities should sometimes be challenging, even difficult, places. Where else is there the time, resources and knowledge to discuss the issues facing the world?”

He said universities should redouble their efforts to discuss the challenges, threats and limits to free speech with their students. “Otherwise, no one can guarantee that higher education will continue to offer a space in which good ideas defeat weak ones through open debate.”

The irony of the forthright statement last week by the prime minister is that the debate about safe spaces in universities has emerged at least partly due to the counter-terrorism measures forced on them via the current 'Prevent' legislation introduced in her previous role as Home Secretary.