If you want some first-hand experience of the contemporary free-speech debate, I recommend joining a student pro-life society. Last month, Oxford Students for Life, of which I am president, discovered the following clause was being put forward at the Oxford University students’ union: ‘Never to [provide a] platform [to] any group or organisation which provides directional advice around abortion or explicitly stands against women’s right to choose.’
To cut a long story short, the clause, which threatened to ban our group from students’ union events like the freshers’ fair, was defeated by 27 votes to 24. Most of those who supported us were not pro-life; as one of them told me afterwards: ‘I’m not on your side. I just believe in having the argument.’ A lot of students share these democratic instincts, as recent events at Durham University and the London School of Economics have shown.
Nonetheless, free speech on campus is constantly threatened, and pro-life societies are a favourite target. For example, there was the farcical attempt to ‘no platform’ pro-lifers at University College London in 2012 – which turned out to be, in the words of the students’ union trustees, ‘completely illegal’ – or the ongoing attempts to outlaw pro-life demonstrations at Cardiff University. It’s not necessarily humourless Stalinists who are behind these motions; believe it or not, many students are genuinely confused about what free speech is and why it matters.
For instance, the NUS Wales women’s officer, Rhiannon Hedge, recently offered a strange defence of censoring pro-lifers. ‘I’ve heard a lot about the principle of free speech’, Hedge writes, before making various accusations against pro-life groups. Some of these accusations are worth considering, some of them less so, but none of them has anything to do with the principle of free speech. The whole point about free speech – as George Orwell and Rosa Luxemburg and many others have repeatedly pointed out – is that if you take it seriously, you have to defend the free speech of precisely the people who drive you up the wall.
That simple point – indeed, the whole case for free speech – has to be made again before it is forgotten. And it might be worth saying that free speech needn’t mean a relativist free-for-all. You can hope for an informed, conscientious public debate, while recognising that such a debate won’t exist if some people feel they have the right to silence others. Which is why, when the right to free speech is endangered, so are all our other rights. Some of us think that is also true of the right to life, but we can discuss that another time. At least, I hope we can.