Our snowflake students need to grow up, but strong-arm tactics will get us nowhere
It should not take the threat of a fine to make colleges stand up for free speech, writes Fionola Meredith
I'm no fan at all of the Tories, but when Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson warned of tough new penalties for universities who fail to promote freedom of speech, my first reaction was to cheer. A new regulator, to be known as the Office for Students, will be given the power to suspend, fine or even deregister universities that do not uphold free speech.
At last, I thought, a bridgehead against the rising tide of toxic intolerance which threatens to engulf the very places that freedom of thought and expression should be most strongly upheld - universities themselves.
The Government's tough new stance also seems like a satisfying kick in the rear for spoilt and entitled snowflake students, so caught up in their own self-righteousness and narcissism that they simply cannot bear to hear the views of people they disagree with, without melting into a puddle of outrage.
Just to be clear, this is rarely about banning murderous warlords, Ku Klux Klan fanciers and the like from campuses. No, it's people like internationally renowned human rights hero Peter Tatchell that cause some students to clap their little hands over their ears and shout, 'I'm not listening, I'm not listening', before threatening to scream and scream until they're sick, unless the nasty man is taken away.
They really do believe that being exposed to ideas they profoundly disagree with causes them harm. That's why they want some books removed from libraries and trigger warnings appended to others. And up until this point, their infantile petulance - all two-year-olds are little Caligulas, and these lot simply haven't grown out of it - has been indulged.
Now here comes Jo Johnson, like a posh blond super-nanny, and he's taking no more nonsense. "Universities should be places which open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged," he says. "Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions."
Very true. But after I got past my satisfaction that someone had at last dared to say no to the whining brats, I realised that this isn't quite such a victory for free speech after all. Slapping a whacking great fine on an institution, to punish it for an act of censorship, is essentially an authoritarian move. It may be done in the name of liberty, freedom and tolerance, but it's jarringly out of step with those vital principles.
As Tom Slater of Spiked magazine has pointed out, it's the unions, rather than the universities themselves, which implement the vast majority of bans, so the new powers may not even work. "The problem on campus is cultural, not legal," says Slater. "Our time would be better spent winning the argument for free speech on campus, not fighting one form of illiberalism with another."
There are further questions too. Just how independent will the new Office for Students be? It is a government-appointed regulator, after all. How much influence will current or future ministers have on which views are deemed acceptable to be heard and which aren't? For instance, I could well imagine a supposedly progressive Corbyn government conjuring up some pious and plausible-sounding reasons for excluding speakers that didn't fit with its own ideological point of view, couldn't you?
Back when I was at Queen's, Sinn Fein members often spoke at the university. This was during the Troubles, in the 1990s, and now I think about it there must have been plenty of students with relatives in the security forces, but SF speakers were, quite rightly, not banned.
They may have been apologists for politically motivated murder, but it was still better to hear what they had to say, and challenge their views openly, rather than attempt to squash or suppress them, thus fuelling still further the Shinners' ever-ready sense of aggrieved martyrdom.
It's not surprising that we're currently being held to ransom by squealing students, fearful of having a panic attack if they're made to read The Great Gatsby. Intolerance - enacted, ironically enough, in the name of the old liberal values that a few of us still hold dear - is at epidemic levels in wider society.
Prim-faced puritanism is on the march once more, only this time it's wearing a progressive mask. Christmas pantomimes are policed for dodgy double-entendres and even the anarchic Dennis the Menace has been forcibly sanitised. Now he's just Dennis, a reformed character who is "determined to succeed" (Yes, really).
Whether on campus or off, Tory strong-arm tactics are not the way to protect free speech. The only remedy is for more of us to start believing in it again.