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Queen's failing to see the value of free speech

Published 02/03/2016

The online website Spiked recently gave Queen's University Belfast a "red light" as a hostile environment for free speech and there is no doubt that the current phase of campus censorship is a real threat to freedom of speech.

One of the most eloquent defences of the principle is John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, published in 1859. He offers three main arguments against repressing an opinion.

First, truth can only emerge from constant argument, discussion and debate.

He notes how learned persons joined with those who persecuted Socrates and Jesus for holding "extreme" opinions, which later won many adherents.

Secondly, Mill argues that free speech keeps established truths alive because it challenges us to know the reasons for our beliefs. Without challenge, even accepted beliefs and moral codes become lifeless.

Finally, Mill maintains that competing views may share the truth between them. Opinions may not be wholly right, or wholly wrong. He points out, for example, that the accepted moral codes of the modern era are not purely Christian, but also stem from pre-Christian Greek and Roman influences.

To Mill's three arguments, we can add at least two others. The first is the principle of respect. In a democracy, we must respect each individual's status as a free and equal member of the community.

A further justification for tolerance of opinion lies in the principles of neutrality and diversity, which underlie the concept of a pluralist society.

The state should neither prescribe, nor proscribe, any particular moral, or religious, view, but should instead be tolerant of - and indeed welcome - diversity.

Universities are a microcosm of the world in which we live and should be places that encourage free enquiry and provocative ideas in the search for a better society.

BRIAN McCLINTON

Humanist Association of Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph

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