‘This house would never limit free speech on student campuses’

Tom SlaterDennis HayesTom Slater, deputy editor of the online current affairs magazine spiked! and co-ordinator of the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) and Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby and founder and director of Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF) defended the proposition ‘This house would never limit free speech on university campuses’.

This was the first meeting of the University of St. Andrews Debating Society for 2016-17, and they won the vote 51 – 32 with 17 abstentions. Here is an account of the debate from the University of St Andrews’ student newspaper The Saint:

UDS presents: THW never limit free speech on student campuses

Jamie Rodney reviews UDS’s first debate of the school year.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2016 4:25 PM

“Oh my god. That was honestly the best. Honestly.”

Excited muttering from First Years, as quoted above, is pretty common during Freshers’ Week; however, such hysterical enthusiasm is typically reserved for events like Starfields or a Fresher’s first Sinners, rather than the slightly more relaxed atmosphere of the Debating Society. At debates, people tend to remain sober until the event’s end, but this is not to say that such exhilaration was unjustified.

Firstly, the setting: Lower Parliament Hall, complete with opulent furnishings and huge portraits, is pretty much the gold standard for grandeur in St Andrews. A GBBO screening could be held there and attendees would still be left with an impression of class and drama.

University of St Andrews Union Debating Society

Credit: University of St Andrews Union Debating Society

The motion “This House Would Never Limit Free Speech on Student Campuses” was also well chosen. Previously UDS start-of-semester debates had focused on topics like the rise of the Scottish National Party or the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, which, while undoubtedly interesting topics, were perhaps less relevant to non-UK students. This motion, by contrast, dealt with a subject that forms an important part of every student’s university experience.

This immediacy was something that was picked up upon by both speakers for the proposition: Dennis Hayes, Director of Academics for Academic Freedom and lecturer at the University of Derby, told the audience that censorship had a worse impact on them than on the censored speakers by denying them a chance to develop by hearing opposing viewpoints.

Author and journalist Tom Slater, meanwhile, argued that the debate over campus free speech was a debate over whether to treat students as adults rather than children who needed to be protected from uncomfortable viewpoints. The opposition also rooted their case in the concerns of the student body with Ali Drabu, an IR student and former MYP, and Penny Sadeghi, Postgraduate Student and UDS veteran, both claiming that unfettered free speech was bad for students from marginalised communities. Mrs Sadeghi claimed that it “will always alienate the most vulnerable.”

The issue of hate speech directed at minorities proved to be one of the main points of clash in the debate, with the proposition claiming that the opposition’s position was patronising and paternalistic, while the opposition claimed it was a simple matter of anti-racism, stressing the importance of defending against hate speech.

Despite the stridency of the rhetoric being used by both sides (possible high point: Mr Hayes claiming that “censorship is not a neutral thing. It’s violence. It damages your humanity.”), the debate was generally good humoured. Mr Drabu quoted Obi Wan Kenobi to support his points and Mr Slater exhorted the audience to make a stand for free speech by going to the Student Union bar and making offensive sexual noises in violation of Union rules. Debates President Beckie Thomas and the UDS Board of Ten also helped to maintain a light tone all the way through.

Despite the audience giving a clear majority to the proposition, with 51 voting in favour, 32 against and 17 abstaining, the floor speeches from audience members were relatively balanced between both sides. First Year Elliot Smith won the traditional bottle of port for the best floor speech after an emotive and deeply personal outpouring against the proposition but other audience contributions were of a similarly high quality, with Fourth Year Konstantin Velichkov matching Mr Smith’s contribution with an equally impassioned speech for the proposition. Third Year student and Board of Ten member Dan Roberts managed, without sacrificing any emotional intensity, to provide a level of nuance to an otherwise polarised debate.

Overall, this was a good night, marrying high-powered intellectual arguments with witty banter in traditional UDS style. Or, in other words: “Oh my god. That was honestly the best. Honestly.”

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