Free speech should not mean hate speech

A common theme of debate at many universities across the UK has been whether student bodies have been ‘stamping down’ on rights to free speech. This comes in the wake of many ‘safe space’ policies being put into action across British universities in an attempt to make all those who study there feel more secure.

But it seems that in all the fuss, the real problem has been overlooked. What exactly does ‘free speech’ entitle us to? Strictly speaking, not much at all, it legally means that you will not be put into jail for your opinion. That’s it. Having the right to free speech does not entitle you to protection from backlash if your ideas are met with hostility, it does not entitle you to offend or upset someone else, and most importantly: it does not entitle you to an audience.

A university’s implementation of a ‘safe space’ policy is not, as many on campus seem to think, a violation of any of your rights. As ‘free speech’ isn’t a right to say what you want where you want and at the expense of whomever you like, it’s a right to avoid prosecution for your beliefs.
Unfortunately, due to the distorted definition of what free speech actually entails, all too often it is used as an excuse or a front for hateful behaviour. Taking the form of the childhood retort, ‘I was just saying’, it seems that safe space programmes have become necessary to combat the wave of hate which has swept across our university campuses, due to a misplaced sense of entitlement.

Yes, you have your right to an opinion, but you do not have the right to damage someone’s well-being. When it comes right down to it, why should your opinion come before someone else’s psychological or emotional health, no matter how important you may feel it is.

A university adopting ‘safe space’ policies is not as so many would like to label it, ‘hand holding’ or ‘coddling’, it’s ensuring the safety and mental well-being of all those who come to university, as all student bodies are expected to do. If you have an opinion which you just can’t help but express, wait for the appropriate audience, go to a bar, meet your friends to discuss it after class, but do not force it upon those who are there to study and advance their academic careers.

Banning offensive costumes at Halloween which appropriate cultures, or songs perpetuating a long standing problem of rape culture, or even the suggestion that perhaps you shouldn’t express that opinion about Hinduism at the risk of damaging someone else’s emotional state; seem like fair and appropriate responses to problems that students face at Universities across the UK. And it seems that in the wake of these seemingly reasonable measures to stamp out hateful behaviour, the backlash that it receives has us wondering why exactly students feel they should have the right to participate in it when it is so clearly at the expense of others?

Free speech is your right to have opinions without the fear of legal prosecution, but safe spaces are to ensure protection from harm, whether emotional or psychological. Which one you feel should come first, may explain the very reason these safe space policies are needed.

Image: Gene Han

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