The government clampdown on university ‘safe spaces’ is hypocrisy: they created the problem

There is a welcome bit of news in yesterday’s Guardian. The newly created Office for Students is being given powers to crack down on universities that fail to uphold the principle of free speech. The government are hoping to break the culture of ‘safe spaces’, ‘no platforming’ speakers and ‘trigger warnings’. The new OfS powers will allow them to fine, suspend or register universities that fail to protect freedom of speech on campuses.

The move has come off the back of a series of high profile ‘no platforming’ cases. Germaine Greer was going to be ‘no platformed’ at Cardiff University following a call from the Student Union women’s officer because of Greer’s supposedly ‘transphobic’ views. Greer was ultimately able to speak but did so under heavy security. Left-wing activists such as Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles, LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell and feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel have all been ‘no platformed’ by the NUS or particular student bodies. Boris Johnson has also faced a bar on speaking.

The Guardian report:

A survey last year found that most university students (63%) are in favour of the National Union of Students (NUS) having a “no platforming” policy. Analysis by Spiked magazine, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, found that more than nine in 10 UK universities are restrictive of free speech.

It is heartening that the government are making moves to uphold the principle of free speech on university campuses.

The problem, however, is that the government’s own equality agenda is causing this very problem. For example, Theresa May’s introduction of Extremist Disruption Orders (EDOs) is vehement about stamping out ‘extremism in all its forms’. Similarly, the government’s equality agenda – closely tied in with their definition of extremism – is seeking to force assent by those who hold mainline religious views. For example, this Jewish school was deemed inadequate by the government regulator because their LGBT+ teaching – entirely in line with their religious beliefs and customs – was contrary to state-prescribed orthodoxy on this issue.

This was in the same week that Dr Joanna Williams noted that transgender policies in UK schools were being pushed and funded disproportionately and were doing more to confuse children than help them. She commented:

However politically well intentioned teachers may be, criticising the views and values of home vastly alters the remit of the school away from education and towards the promotion of a distinct political outlook.

Worse still, rather than simply inspecting schools, the government determined that OfSTED would inspect all out-of-school religious instruction. Whilst the policy was no doubt a response to suspected Islamic radicalisation taking place in madrassas, due to the government’s desperate need to appear even-handed, Sunday Schools, Christian camps and even Sunday preaching ended up included too. Regardless of which religious group this was targetted toward, the move had the chilling implication of making the government the state regulator of religion.

Even in the last couple of days, stories have emerged from a school in Kent that has effectively ‘no platformed’ the organisation CrossTeach. Whilst this was not the result of government intervention, a handful of parents have sought to push the Christian organisation out of this Christian school for the errant practice of daring to teach Christian doctrine. Even while the Headteacher was unequivocal in vindicating CrossTeach, stating publicly that they had a longstanding relationship with the school and had done nothing wrong, he acquiesced to the baying crowd. There does not appear to be any suggestion of OfS intervention for ‘no platforming’ here. Seemingly what is good for the university goose is not acceptable for the school gander.

The point here is a simple one. The government may rightly abhor the practice of ‘no platforming’ and the culture of ‘safe spaces’ at the university level but they singularly fail to grasp that their ongoing policies at a school level have created the culture they are now so desperate to curtail. You cannot spend 12 years telling children that there are wrong things to think, wrong things to say, inappropriate beliefs to hold – even sanctioning them (or their parents) when they fail to abide by state orthodoxy – and magically expect them to be open-minded learners when they hit 18. The culture of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platforming’ is a direct product of the schools equality agenda that tells children, from the ages of 5 through to 18, that certain views, opinions and beliefs are unsayable, unthinkable and unacceptable. Fining universities for failing to uphold free speech is one thing, but the government themselves have created the students who are so unwilling to bear it.

How can the government claim the moral free speech high ground when their approach to school education is churning out the very people who cannot cope with contrary beliefs and opinions? As has been noted before, schools no longer appear to teach children how to think but what to think. In such an environment, is it any wonder that students have learnt not to tolerate views they find challenging? For 12 years the government tells children which views are acceptable and sanctions them, often along with their parents, if they demur.

How are students supposed to welcome Germaine Greer saying M-to-F transgender people are simply men without the appropriate anatomical bits when they have been repeatedly told this is ‘transphobic’? How are they meant to engage with the pro-life group that has consistently been denounced as ‘extremist’? How are they meant to listen to the traditional marriage advocate when they have been told over and again that denial of SSM is tantamount to hatred of all gay people? If people have been told from the earliest age that certain views are intrinsically wrong, even harmful, we can hardly be surprised if they refuse to sit and listen politely to such dangerous material.

If the government really want to crackdown on this culture, it needs to start with their schools agenda. They cannot tell people what they must think and then expect them to jettison 12 years of indoctrination education the moment they enter university. When I repeatedly tell my son that sticking his hand in the fire will damage him, I don’t expect him to immediately decide as an adult that it might be a good idea. If we continue to teach children that certain views are verboten we will continue to see students enforcing the very same rules in their universities that we expected them to follow throughout the rest of their education.

Clamping down on universities for rejecting free speech won’t resolve the problem. Until the government stop insisting on what children and families should believe, we will continue to see free speech in universities under attack. After all, that is what the government has taught us to think.