Theresa May’s war on free-speech extremists

Last Wednesday, the UK home secretary, Theresa May, made some revealing comments regarding her views on freedom of speech. At an event at Mansion House in the City of London, she argued that there was nothing ‘educational’ about allowing those with extremist views to speak at university campuses. Welcoming the efforts by many universities to ban extremists from campus, she argued that ‘defending the value of free speech’ was no excuse to allow hateful speakers to spout their views.

She went on to suggest that ‘extremist language can lead to extreme violence’. This is a fallacy that shows her lowly view of students today. While words and argument may have an effect on how people may view an issue or idea, they always have the choice to accept it outright, incorporate it into their existing view, or to dismiss it entirely. Since students attend university because they are thought of, and presumably think of themselves, as fairly intelligent and intellectually robust, it is unlikely that students will accept any idea with obvious flaws in its reasoning. Thus there is no guarantee that any idea propagated on a university campus will persuade anyone.

Clearly, May does not believe that universities are spaces in which to hear, debate and reason with certain ideas, but rather are institutions that should impart the ‘right sort’ of knowledge. What May doesn’t seem to grasp is that it is precisely through unfettered free speech that the ‘right sort’ of knowledge can be discerned, on campus and beyond. Only by allowing all ideas to be heard, and argued out, can those views that are based on hatred or logical fallacy be debunked and criticised for what they are.

May shows in her comments that she does not believe in the ideal of free speech, and, what’s more, does not believe that university students, let alone the general public, are intellectually sound and mature enough to deal with certain concepts and ideas. Indeed, if university students are not deemed to be qualified to deal with ideas which the state may not agree with, then the government must hold an even dimmer view of those in the electorate who aren’t university educated.

Hopefully, students will stand up and counter this infantile view of their mental capabilities and, through free speech, tell the home secretary where to go.

Guy Pierce is a writer and researcher based in London.

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