Universities launch free speech societies

A free speech society set up by a student at the University of Buckingham now has over 100 members, and has led to copycat societies in five other top universities.

James Oliver said he was driven to combat the rise of censorship on campus after conservative commentator Peter Hitchens was ‘no-platformed’ by the University of Portsmouth back in February.

No-platforming is the growing phenomenon of refusing to host speakers or societies who hold unpopular views.

Open-minded

Oliver said: “We were delighted when the society was approved by Buckingham Students’ Union with no hostility”.

“Students’ unions elsewhere have behaved appallingly in many cases.” He added that they “wanted to create a community in which anybody could feel comfortable sharing and hearing different ideas — however controversial”.

Peter Hitchens was the first speaker invited to speak to the society, and Oliver said that although some of his statements were challenged by students, people remained open to having their minds changed.

‘Depressing’

The Times newspaper welcomed the new societies and lauded the students who had formed them, but said it is “a sad indictment of our free speech that students need societies to protect it”.

Its editorial said it is “depressing” that any British university should feel the need to establish such a society at all, adding: “free speech is central to the whole purpose of a university”.

“Without freedom of speech there is no freedom of thought and without freedom of thought, how is our society to extend the boundaries of understanding and knowledge?”

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