Can it really be such a bad thing that students are engaged in questions of power?by Marta Santiváñez and Emma Yeomans / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The British reporter Michela Wrong has made a career from telling inconvenient truths. Her 2005 book I Didn’t Do It for You narrated the story of Eritrea’s bumpy journey towards independence, among an international community that apparently couldn’t care less. In 2009, It’s Our Turn to Eat turned an unsparing eye on corruption in present-day Kenya. Neither book can be bought in the countries they depict. It’s not that they’re banned as such—it’s just that, as she explained recently, “no bookseller will sell them.”
In a place like Eritrea, which has been called the world’s biggest prison because of its human rights record, having limits placed on your intellectual freedom is no great surprise—perhaps even a source of pride. By contrast, the University of Bristol is not somewhere that Wrong expected to confront issues of free speech. In November 2017, however, she was invited to address a student society there, only to find out that the organisation was required to fill out a background check, confirming that she conformed with the university’s “safe space” policies.
Wrong turned the invitation down. She explained in a letter—subsequently published—that she took “exception to the entire notion of ‘safe spaces’ and the practice of ‘no-platforming.’” “I am more aware than most of the way such policies distort our understanding of the world and silence informed debate,” she wrote. “Why on earth would I endorse that system at home?”
Barely a month goes by without headlines about assaults on freedom of speech in universities. The issue has been particularly volatile in the United States, where students have protested vociferously about everything from talks by white nationalists to “cultural appropriation” (over insufficiently “authentic” Asian cuisine at Oberlin College in Ohio). Criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement in a campus newspaper at Wesleyan University in Connecticut sparked a campaign to withdraw its funding.
Events by right-wing provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos have been particular flash points. His planned appearance last year at the University of California in Berkeley was cancelled after it ran into demonstrations, prompting the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump to scream “NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” on Twitter, in supposed defence of free speech.