Javier Espinoza and Gordon Rayner, telegraph.co.uk
Photo: David Sandison/The Independent/REX
British universities have become too politically correct and are stifling free speech by banning anything that causes the least offence to anyone, academics argue
British universities have become too politically correct and are stifling free speech by banning anything that causes the least offence to anyone, a group of leading academics warns on Saturday.
A whole generation of students is being denied the “intellectual challenge of debating conflicting views” because self-censorship is turning campuses into over-sanitised “safe spaces”, they say.
Their intervention comes as an Oxford college considers removing a historic statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of its alumni and benefactors, because he is regarded as the founding father of apartheid in South Africa.
"The College does not share Cecil Rhodes's values or condone his racist views or actions."
Oriel College says the statue of Rhodes, on a building he paid for, jars with the values of a modern university. It is facing a battle with Historic England, which has listed the statue as an object of historical interest.
Writing in The Telegraph, the academics, led by Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury, and Joanna Williams, education editor, Spiked, say it is part of a “long and growing” list of people and objects banned from British campuses, including pop songs, sombreros and atheists.
They say the “deeply worrying development” is curtailing freedom of speech “like never before” because few things are safe from student censors.
Because universities increasingly see fee-paying students as customers, they do not dare to stand up to the “small but vocal minority” of student activists who want to ban everything from the Sun newspaper to the historian David Starkey.
The letter says: “Few academics challenge censorship that emerges from students. It is important that more do, because a culture that restricts the free exchange of ideas encourages self-censorship and leaves people afraid to express their views in case they may be misinterpreted. This risks destroying the very fabric of democracy.
“An open and democratic society requires people to have the courage to argue against ideas they disagree with or even find offensive. At the moment there is a real risk that students are not given opportunities to engage in such debate.
“A generation of students is being denied the opportunity to test their opinions against the views of those they don’t agree with.”
Calling on vice-chancellors to take a “much stronger stance” against all forms of censorship, they conclude that “students who are offended by opposing views are perhaps not yet ready to be at university”.
Freedom of speech carries a burden of responsibility which shouldn’t be overlooked.
Professors have complained recently that they are being bullied online by students who are easily offended by opposing views.
In recent months, students at British universities have banned, cancelled or challenged a host of speakers and objects because some found them offensive. Maryam Namazie, a prominent human rights campaigner who is one of the signatories to the letter, was initially banned from speaking at Warwick University because she is an atheist who, it was feared, could incite hatred on campus. She spoke at Warwick in the end.
"We are starting the process of consultation with Oxford City Council this week in advance of submitting a formal application for consent to remove the Rhodes plaque."
In September, the University of East Anglia banned students from wearing free sombreros they were given by a local Tex-Mex restaurant because the student union decided non-Mexicans wearing the wide-brimmed hats could be interpreted as racist.
Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion after female students complained that they would be offended by the presence of “a person without a uterus”, in other words a man, on the panel.
Cardiff University students tried to ban the feminist icon Germaine Greer because she once wrote that a man who was castrated would not behave like a woman, which was construed as offensive to transsexuals.
Mark Prisk, the Conservative MP in whose constituency Cecil Rhodes was born, said: “This rather narrow minded view of trying to shut down people’s opinions, even if we find them abhorrent, doesn’t remove the fact that they happened or that people held those opinions.”
Ironically, the South African former Oriel student leading the campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes attended Oxford as a beneficiary of a scholarship funded by Rhodes’s legacy.
Ntokozo Qwabe, who set up the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign, is one of more than 8,000 foreign students who have been able to study at Oxford because of a Rhodes Scholarship, paid for by the Rhodes Trust, which was set up by Cecil Rhodes in his will.
Last month The Daily Telegraph revealed that students at Harvard had asked for rape law to be dropped from lectures in case any students were victims of sexual assault. And President Obama has said that“coddling” students is “not the way we learn”.
Other signatories to the letter include Kathryn Ecclestone, professor of education at Sheffield University, Prof Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham and Dr Cheryl Hudson, a history lecturer at Liverpool University.