Permission to speak freely, Sir?

Illustration: Caroline McKeon

When addressing the subject of freedom of speech, there are several quotes to choose from. Voltaire, Churchill and Orwell have all offered their thoughts on the matter, but this article will begin with Benjamin Franklin’s: “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech”.

Freedom of speech in universities is now a much-reported topic, especially at British and American universities, and usually relates to safe-space and no-platform policies. The Berkeley riots in response to Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned appearance were the latest incident to not only receive national, but indeed international, coverage.

In Britain, the press regularly cover incidents where university speakers are prevented from speaking or their appearance results in protest, as well as decisions by students’ unions to ban music and art that may cause offence.

Coverage extends from decisions made by the universities of Derby and Edinburgh to ban Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” from student bars to attempts by students at the University of Cambridge to prevent veteran feminist Germaine Greer from addressing the Cambridge Union. The UK Prime Minister Theresa May went so far as to discuss the subject during Prime Minister’s questions in the Houses of Parliament.

As it stands, there is a great debate taking place about freedom of speech on university campuses, and Ireland is no exception.

Across the Island

“Perhaps a more notable incident occurred in 2014, when the University of Limerick (UL) Life Society was denied recognition and funding by the Clubs & Societies Council, the first group ever to be rejected.”

In January 2016, a University College Cork cafe removed its advertising after the college’s Students’ Union deemed it sexist and disrespectful. Their posters featured phrases like “What’s Your Cup Size?” and “Cheap Looking”, accompanied by pictures of women.

Also in January 2016, the same Students’ Union, as well as members of the governing body of the college, criticised the decision to name a campus building after Professor James Watson, famous for describing the double helix structure of DNA. Watson has expressed controversial views on minorities and women; in 2007 he stated to the Irish Times he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”. Watson has also said that if the gene that determines sexuality could be found and “a woman decides she does not want a homosexual child, well, let her”.

Perhaps a more notable incident occurred in 2014, when the University of Limerick Life Society was denied recognition and funding by the Clubs & Societies Council, the first group ever to be rejected. Societies looking for official funding and status approach the Council, and under the rules of the University a vote is held if there is an objection from a council member. The matter was put to a vote, with 22 against approval and 21 in favour. The result: the society could continue to operate as a society, but would not receive the official support of the Union.

In terms of speaker controversy, Milo Yiannopoulos addressed UCD in February 2016 without much notice. In 2015, however, the decision of human rights activist Maryam Namazie to not speak at Trinity College attracted national attention. Namazie withdrew from an event organised by the Society for International Affairs (SOFIA).

In a blog post about her decision, she stated that she objected to having a moderator present for security reasons, as well as the possibility of the College appearing as if it was trying to provoke Muslim students, and the fact that the event was only open to Trinity students. SOFIA explained in a later statement that Namazie had been mistakenly led to believe the event would be public. Namazie went on to speak to the Philosophical Society in October of the same year.

Trinity’s Feud

“’If we are going to do more as a university or student union, rather than just pay lip service to the idea of human rights, basic values and ideas, then we do need to reject giving a platform to advocates to a particular party or state or group […] that are actively committed to discrimination or racism or war crimes or apartheid’”

The recent protests at the Israeli ambassador’s address to SOFIA provides another opportunity to turn the spotlight on the status of free speech at Trinity College. In a telephone conversation with Trinity News, Ciaran O’Rourke, a co-founder of the group Students for Justice in Palestine TCD, discussed the status of free speech in College and explained the group’s decision to protest the Israeli ambassador’s address.

“Students for Justice in Palestine is a group calling for the boycott of Israel on human rights grounds, in solidarity with the Palestinian Civil Society groups which have been calling since 2005 for such measures of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel on human rights grounds”.

O’Rourke said this position is based on the international South African boycott model in the 1980s against apartheid, which Trinity was involved in.

O’Rourke stressed that the boycott isn’t “trying to target academics, institutes or students, just to address the occupation, which is illegal” and argues for academic freedom to be universal but for non-academic complicity in apartheid policy. The group’s position is based in active solidarity and uses boycott as a tactic to “get both sides to a position where they can actually have a dialogue”.

Fundamentally, O’Rourke believes that “if we are going to do more as a university or student union rather than just pay lip service to the idea of human rights, basic values and ideas, then we do need to reject giving a platform to advocates to a particular party or state or group […] that are actively committed to discrimination or racism or war crimes or apartheid”. O’Rourke further cited the example of Mandela House in Front Square (House Six) as precedent for activism such as the group’s: it was named after not only the former President of South Africa, but also in memory of the academics and students of College that supported him.

O’Rourke said the legacy of student activism is very important at Trinity and should be upheld, and cited College statutes allowing students to assemble and express grievances.

SOFIA’s secretary Jack Dykstra-McCarthy discussed the idea of giving a platform to speakers, protests and other issues of free speech in a telephone conversation with Trinity News. Dykstra-McCarthy explained the function of SOFIA: “we facilitate discussion and debate and provide a platform for a range of issues every week”. The society invites experts to inform students, and aims to be as relevant and “present as possible”.

Dykstra-McCarthy stressed that “the point is a student can ask any question they like”, and that “ambassadors have always been aware that anyone can ask anything”. According to Dykstra-McCarthy, SOFIA decides to give a platform “solely on the issues” but “we’ll [SOFIA] take the speaker into account. With the ambassadors it’s quite clear they are the representatives of a recognised country in Ireland without a doubt, so that’s why we give them a platform and an invitation to every single ambassador”.

The contention surrounding the Israeli ambassador’s address hosted by SOFIA, and the resulting protest, was widely reported. Students for Justice in Palestine disputed the degree of freedom and openness of the discussion, citing passport submission and bag searches as well as violation of the boycott as reason for the disruption.

Dykstra-McCarthy also praised the value of protest and demonstration “to protest, to demonstrate are hugely valuable actions […]; you increase awareness for the issue, whatever that may be, and heighten the discussion” but went on to lament that the event’s cancellation meant “we reduced our level of knowledge” about the issue. He continued: “if members of protest had put questions forward the entire audience would have left knowing more about the debate”.

The idea of a university as a safe space arose when the tension established by boycotting certain speakers for solidarity reasons conflicted with providing platforms to better inform students.  Dykstra-McCarthy believes there is no need: “we are very lucky in Trinity at the moment; I don’t think there is any need for a safe space. Everyone is as far as I am aware very respectful and very aware of issues that might cause offense, and won’t go out of their way to impose on other people”.

O’Rourke, however, believes that as a university we need to be aware of the views that people hold, and warns against turning serious views into PR issues. However, he did not outright say there was cause for them. “There are certain sorts of discourse that are just as offensive, they constitute hate speech and we should respect that at university. Your freedom doesn’t mean legitimizing forms of violence and hatred; it’s quite the opposite. We need to learn to criticise that and reject that”.

An Impartial Voice

“‘Obviously it’s harder to have an opinion that not many other people have; I don’t necessarily think that means your freedom of speech is limited.’”

The University Philosophical Society (The Phil) is one of the oldest forums for debate and discussion in College, and regularly hosts guest speakers. In a telephone conversation with Trinity News, its president, Matthew Nuding, gave his views on free speech, no-platforming and safe spaces. Nuding stated the Phil’s aims were to “strive towards a good exchange of views and ideas”, and said that the Phil as a society, like SOFIA, takes a neutral stance. When hosting speakers, Nuding said “we don’t have a no-platform policy”, but added, “obviously when you are inviting speakers you have to understand the context in which they are being invited to speak”.

For debates, Nuding said he is quite open “to inviting anyone for a debate, because with the Phil you are always going to be challenged in a debate”. This is owing to the format of  meetings, where the proposition and opposition are each given ample opportunity to hash out their disagreements. The Phil has not needed to operate a “safe space” policy, as the need has never really occurred, according to Nuding. While the Phil tries to encourage speakers to use parliamentary language, they “don’t really have a policy not to offend; it doesn’t really encourage people not to”.

Conservative students’ concerns often emerge in discussions about freedom of speech in universities in Britain and America. Nuding disagrees with this: “I think a lot of people say there is a mob mentality for people who say conservatives aren’t really given a lot of opportunities to speak on issues […] I think a lot of it is unwarranted, because there are ample opportunities for students who are conservative”.

Nuding cites as an example the recent chamber debate on abortion, where four Pro-Life students were invited to speak. However, he acknowledges that “obviously it’s harder to have an opinion that not many other people have. I don’t necessarily think that means your freedom of speech is limited”.

The case for boycott on the basis of active solidarity and human rights is a far more complicated issue than the topic of offence which occurs when discussing no-platforming policies and safe spaces. Dykstra-McCarthy is cautious, though, about the precedent of denying invited speakers the opportunity to speak.

“We are tremendously lucky as students to throw the name Trinity College, Dublin, in a letter to anyone. Most people are so willing and excited to come and speak to students”. He hopes that other people are not discouraged in the future.

The role of universities in the promotion of free speech, academic freedom and the exchange of ideas remains as important as ever, as does the ability of students to assemble to protest and demonstrate on matters that are important to them, from repealing the 8th amendment to divesting from fossil fuels, student fees, or in this case the boycott of Israel on human rights grounds. The question of offence, so prevalent in UK and US discussions about free speech on university campuses, is so far not pressing at Trinity College. Debate, dissent and discussion endure.