Universities cannot herald censorship

Anyone who tries to bend the free will of those in a university will inevitably fail – for it is this community above others that prizes self-determination.

Censorship in universities is an injustice suffered in totalitarian regimes across the world. Students in the Middle East continue to fight constraints on freedom of thought and expression imposed by their authoritarian leaders – across Syria, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere – on everything from the university curriculum to student organisations.

Until recently a Politics student in Libya would be fed propaganda from Gaddafi’s largely incomprehensible governmental guide, The Green Book, which rages against liberal democracy and places freedom of speech in the hands of state-controlled media. Syrian students faced violent clashes with security forces when it demonstrated against a military regime that blocks overseas news and pro-democracy websites.
Students and young people in this situation are not faced with a choice when it comes to their education; they are told what (not) to read, think, and express. Knowledge, as the paradigm of freedom, is ruthlessly oppressed.

It is therefore surprising to find that, in liberal democracies that impose no such constraints, it is the students themselves that feel it necessary to dictate what their fellows should read or be audience to.

In Trinity College, minute details of student life are steered in a certain direction by other members of the university, even its own Union.

It has become a matter of course, for example, that any product that the Students’ Union considers abhorrent will not be made available on the campus as far as its power dictates. Nestlé products will not be stocked in its shops, the Union says, due to human rights concerns – quite the headline grabber. A referendum was necessary to overturn the futile Coca Cola ban. A recent stint of refusing to stock the Irish Daily Mail reinforced this absurd policy – “we will use our elected mandate to covertly prevent you from making your own choice.”

It sends a clear message that students themselves, despite attending one of the world’s top universities, nevertheless lack the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong.

The issue of censorship in this university is a highly contentious one. While some argue freedom of speech should be taken at face value, others believe a platform should not be given should it cause offence or distress to others.

Whether it was right or wrong to side with the latter argument in the case of controversial figures like Nick Griffin and David Irving is moot – but it begs the question: where will the line be drawn?

While freedom of speech in Trinity bears no comparison to its counterparts in the Middle East, the principle remains the same. University students, by definition, should be encouraged to make their own informed choices. The gift of freedom is a rare one in this world – and it is a shame for its principle to be squandered for no reason.
This point is particularly salient in liberal Ireland, which, it must be remembered, has only recently emerged from the ashes of press censorship.

Trinity graduates from the 1990s will remember a time when the media was not allowed to present homosexuality in a positive light, prior its legalisation in 1993. Although it was a ban flouted by the likes of Hot Press and InDublin, it took years of campaigning by pro-equality campaigners including David Norris and Mary McAleese to overturn the archaic law.

During this era, women’s magazines sold in the Republic were forced to blank out pages containing contact numbers for abortion clinics. As Trinity Students’ Union President, Ivana Bacik was taken to court for flouting this ban by providing information on abortion – a case which pro-life group SPUC eventually won.

In short, using a platform to deny the voice of others – however disagreeable or despicable their ideas may be – is a salute to the dark days of the censorship state.