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Charlie Hebdo: Craven Queen University's needs a lesson in free speech

By Fionola Meredith

We are exceptional, says the embarrassingly boastful Queen's University Belfast slogan. After the decision to cancel a conference about the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, Queen's had better get on the phone to the PR men who come up with this guff for them, no doubt at great expense. In the meantime, here's some (free) suggestions from me. We are exceptionally lily-livered. We are exceptionally short-sighted. We are exceptionally censorious. Or how about all three?

Queen's should spend less time thinking about vacuous ways of branding and selling itself, and a lot more time thinking about the fundamental nature of a university, and what it's there to do.

The Vice-Chancellor, Paul Johnston, cited concerns about "the security risk for delegates" and "the reputation of the university" as his reasons for banning the event, which was called Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo.

Okay. Let's take the security concerns first. Are we really being asked to believe that an obscure academic symposium on the societal implications of the Paris attack, held in a provincial university, is a magnet for global jihad? That the very mention of the dread words 'Charlie Hebdo' is enough to attract the negative attentions of any passing suicide bomber? Few people, outside the delegates themselves, would have even heard of this event, if the Vice-Chancellor had not had such an unseemly panic reaction. Now, the whole world has, but for very different, and badly damaging, reasons.

The part that really disturbs me is this question of the imperilled reputation of the university, were the event to go ahead. What on earth can Professor Johnston mean? Is it now considered academically disgraceful to debate controversial topics? Is this what we have come to, that the practice of free speech is now regarded as an indelible black mark on an institution's name?

Look, I love my beautiful alma mater. I spent almost 10 years at Queen's, first as an undergraduate, and then as an MA and PhD student. My children were born while I was studying there, and I never walk through the quad without feeling a deep sense of connection to the place. Here I was taught to grapple with difficult, complex, contradictory ideas - "the collision of adverse opinions", as John Stuart Mill had it - and to weigh them up dispassionately. I was taught how to sharpen and hone my intellect, and to react with curiosity, not offence and horror, when confronted with uncomfortable beliefs antithetical to my own. That is what a university is for, after all. It's a vital space where the pursuit of knowledge is valued for its own end, without fear or favour, or at least it should be. That is why the moral and intellectual cowardice of the current administration, in banning this event, is so shocking.

Delegates themselves have also reacted with incredulity. Brian Klug, an Oxford professor of philosophy, declared himself "baffled" and "dismayed" by the decision to cancel. He said the conference organisers were actually setting "an excellent example of how academia should respond to complex conflicts in the public sphere. They deserve to be fully supported by their university - not to have the rug pulled out from under their feet".

It's true that in lurching to the default mode of 'if in doubt, ban it', Queen's is not alone. A no-platform policy is increasingly in evidence at many universities in Britain and Ireland. Originally intended to silence fascists, it now seems to serve as a means of preventing anyone with controversial views from being heard, often on the dubious grounds that universities have a duty of care to protect students and staff from 'hate speech'. To capitulate to this nonsense is to treat people like children, not sentient adults who have the capacity to make their own judgments about what is right and wrong.

And we are now seeing the absurd consequences of such mollycoddling. At a recent NUS women's conference in England, there were requests for no clapping after the speeches, because it was "triggering anxiety" in some delegates. Yes, really. If people consider themselves too vulnerable and delicate to cope with the sound of appreciative applause, no wonder they find the idea of actively offensive speech more overwhelming than they can bear.

Which is why universities should not be running away from free speech shrieking like a girl, but taking every opportunity to support, encourage and protect it. For if these great liberal bastions don't man up, who will?

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