Redbrick Comment interviewed Tom Slater, editor of Spiked Online and founder of the Free Speech University Rankings project, to find out why he thinks free speech and open platforms are so important in society.
At the Battle of Ideas Festival 2015 at the Barbican, London, Redbrick Comment caught up with Tom Slater, editor of Spiked Online and founder of the Free Speech University Rankings project which rates universities nationwide according to their platforms for free speech. Having attended an earlier ‘Campus Wars’ panel at the festival, we had a great deal of questions for him about the freedom of speech in today’s society and why it is so important in universities especially.
Why do you think free speech is so important in societies and, more specifically, in University?
“I think free speech is so important because, ultimately it’s the way that we come to understand the world and understand where we should go, effectively. I think that it is only through having a complete open forum that you can test each other’s ideas and you can come up with new and progressive ones that ultimately drive society forwards. I think that’s something that permeates all of society. The thing about universities, though, is that they are a place that, more so than anywhere else, should uphold this ideal and this principle, because their whole moral mission is to sort truth from untruth and to allow people to explore their own ideas. So, ultimately I think free speech is a progressive value, it’s for all of society, but universities have a distinct moral mission to uphold it, that’s why it’s such a tragedy that they’re not, at the moment.”
What do you think is the greatest threat to freedom of speech in society?
“It’s a hard one to answer insofar as the attacks are coming from all sides and as much as you could say that it’s these ‘mad feminists’ who want to ban lads mags and censor blurred lines, and tell rugby lads that they can’t say ‘minger’, all this kind of stuff, at the same time, you’ve got the government trying to impose censorship on campus and almost using the same logic as lad culture and effectively saying that if you allow people to hear certain ideas you create a climate in which radicalisation can flourish, it’s really exactly the same thing. And then, on the other end there’s plenty of people who are in the last remnants of the anti-fascist movements who still think it’s a good idea to oppose fascism by no-platforming it. I mean, I went to university at Sussex, and it’s fascinating that they still randomly think that not only the national front on the march, but that banning them is a good idea. So there’s all these different attacks, old and new, but my argument is that ultimately, the reason that this is so spread is because there is a general climate at the moment which ultimately sees speech as dangerous, debate as corrupting, and, most importantly, individuals as vulnerable. The reason you get feminists and conservatives effectively arguing that free speech needs to curtail speaks to the fact that this is a broader climate and not a thing that’s coming from any one direction.”
Would you have said that direct attacks or a more subliminal fear are more harmful or dangerous to the freedom of speech?
“Obviously we have to be very vigilant against direct attempts to censor, that goes for student unions, that goes for the states, if there’s any attempt to do that, we really need to be very vigilant to it. So, for instance, the PREVENT duty that’s coming through that is telling universities to censor speakers and all the rest of it is really a big problem, but at the same time, it’s not the jackboot of the state stamping down on the students, we’ve got to recognise that. Often it’s not even the student unions, I think the problem is that these bans are aided and abetted by a climate of conformism and self censorship. That’s ultimately the problem and why I say it’s a broader societal problem than something that’s just being imposed on people, because not only is self-censorship, in itself, very insidious – you’re scared to say what you think and you don’t need anyone to censor you – but the flip side of that is that if you have this conformist climate, this fearful climate, no one is going to oppose these things, if anything, the might even support them. There’s two sides to the same coin; we’ve got to be very vigilant to active state censorship or otherwise, but at the same time we need to challenge this deeper issue of self censorship because one really fuels the other.”
What is the government doing, or not doing, to influence freedom of speech?
“I think the government is playing into the same trap that everyone seems to be falling into which is ‘I believe in freedom of speech, BUT’, and you see this with David Cameron’s announcement, particularly in July, where he talks about how ‘we’re a British nation, we’re a tolerant nation, we believe in freedom, but there’s such a thing as passive tolerance – which is nonsense – the idea that the whole point of tolerance is that you should challenge things. So I think what the government is doing is what people do throughout society which is pay lip service to free speech, but then talk about all the ways in which it’s being curtailed. I think the problem is that that’s really the way these debates have been had out for the last 20 or 30 years. Every debate you listen to is one in which free speech is paid lip service to, and then they just catalogue all the reasons why it should be curtailed in these circumstances, and I think the government is doing that as much as anyone else.”
Do you think religion is an issue with freedom of speech?
“Not necessarily, I mean, I’m not any kind of theologian, so I won’t be able to work out for you whether Islam or Christianity or anything else are ultimately hostile to it. But, I think religion has been caught up with everything else in this ‘climate of concern’. You’ve got Islamist speakers being banned, you’ve got Christian speakers being banned, told that they’re Nazis. So ultimately, it’s a theological question that I’m not prepared to answer. If there is a religion that needs to be tackled, it’s this cultish belief that everyone is really vulnerable and everyone really needs to be protected. That really feels like the religion that’s really being preached on campus at the moment, I feel like that’s where the focus should be.”