A panel debated the limits and meaning of free speech Wednesday, in an event hosted by spiked magazine as part of its “Down with Campus Censorship” campaign.
In February, spiked released its first Free Speech University Rankings. The University of Edinburgh received a red ranking, with the report citing the Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA)’s ‘safe space’ and ‘no platform’ policies.
In the event held in the University’s Teviot Dining Room, the central question of the debate was ‘Should we end censorship on campus?’.
For the motion were Tom Slater, assistant editor of spiked magazine and coordinator of its Free Speech University Rankings, and Blair Spowart, a third year philosophy student.
Opposing the motion were Eve Livingston, Vice President Societies and Activities at EUSA, and Maddy Churchhouse, a second year History and Classics student and member of Edinburgh University Debates Union.
Spowart started off the debate by arguing that free speech on university campuses is important because it encourages progress and improves students’ abilities to “combat bad ideas”.
He said: “It’s ultimately more harmful to push bad ideas under the radar and pretend they don’t exist.”
In her opening statement, Churchhouse argued that the debate shouldn’t have been framed as an issue of censorship.
“I see censorship as a situation where those who are already in power […] use that power to oppress people who try to speak out against that power.”
She further said that the policies in question were justified, since restricting speech is sometimes required for the “best moral outcome”.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m damn proud that Edinburgh has a red free speech rating, and you should be too.”
Slater agreed with Spowart, arguing that EUSA’s safe space policy restricts free speech and marks a “fundamental shift” in student censorship.
“This censorship mandate is free-floating, it can attach itself to anything that can potentially offend or make people uncomfortable.”
He said many of the most progressive concepts like democracy, liberty, and abolitionism once made people uncomfortable and that discomfort and offence were not sufficient justification to ban certain types of speech.
Livingston argued that for debates to be fair and for speech to truly be free, marginalised voices must be amplified.
She said: “Free speech has been co-opted by exactly those it was intended to challenge and hold to account.”
Each side maintained their positions were in the interest of truly free speech throughout the debate, and found little common ground.
Audience members, both on Twitter and with their questions and comments, were overwhelmingly critical of Spowart and Slater’s remarks.
Dash Sekhar, Vice President Academic Affairs at EUSA, asked: “Did you really just tell me that I need to face racism from my student union?”
Another audience member asked: “Have you ever had the need to have a safe space?”
“You are a load of fucking c***s,” one audience member shouted at the end.
Speaking to The Student, Churchhouse said she wasn’t in a position to judge audience members for their feelings or outbursts.
“I’m not a minority, or gay, or trans, so who am I to judge someone else’s anger?”