Tom Slater Tom Slater

Who’s to blame for our censorious students?

Without freedom of speech, you do not have a university. More than any other value, it is freedom of speech that most defines the university, that makes it a special place in society set aside for debate and inquiry in which speech and thought should be freer than in practically any other workplace or institution.

And yet an alarming proportion of students seem not to have got the memo. A new study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London confirms what has been clear for some time: that today’s students, far from being rebellious free-thinkers, are if anything more supportive of censorship than the general population.

The numbers are pretty stark. Forty-one per cent of students believe that academics who ‘teach material that offends some students’ should be fired, compared to just 25 per cent of the general public. Similarly, 39 per cent of students believe that students’ unions should ‘ban all speakers that may cause offence’, compared to just 26 per cent of the general public.

You either support free speech for all or for none at all

The notion that even discussing bigoted ideas risks legitimising them is also alarmingly mainstream on campus. Forty-six per cent of students believe that ‘if you debate an issue like sexism or racism you make it acceptable’. This is essentially a blank cheque for censorship, based on the conviction that people are too easily led to even be exposed to obnoxious ideas.

On all of these questions, a plurality of students side, essentially, with censorship – only around 30 per cent of students disagree with any of these statements. This is the crucial context to the never-ending stories of campus censorship. Whether it is the hounding of Kathleen Stock or the No Platforming of ‘Islamophobic’ speakers – in each case, an alarming number of students will think ‘fair enough’ when they see such censorship.

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