Newsnight: David Aaronovitch debates free speech and universities

Index on Censorship chairman David Aaronovitch appeared on BBC Newsnight on Thursday to discuss free speech with a representative of Leeds University student union

02 Nov 2015


One of the truly great things about being a student used to be the exposure university life gave you to all sorts of views — absurd and otherwise — and being able to decide for yourself what to make of them. Students were once known for their dedication to free speech and academic freedom, epitomised by the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, 1964-65.

In 2015, students are more renowned for the practice of trying to ban anyone they believe to have dangerous views in order to protect fellow tutees, whether it’s removing the Sun from the shelves or refusing airplay to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. We witnessed this tendency most recently with the petition to ban Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University because of her “misogynistic views towards trans women”.

Index on Censorship chairman David Aaronovitch appeared on BBC Newsnight on Thursday to debate free speech at universities with Toke Dahler, a representative of Leeds University student union. Dahler said that “it’s up to students” to decide where the threat lies, and it is the student union’s responsibility to then “make sure that students feel safe and feel welcome”.

For Aaronovitch, student unions should be places of lively debate and discussion, rather than places where students are “hermetically sealed away behind a form of intellectual rampart within which they can feel safe”. The problem with Dahler’s view, said Aaronovitch, is one of definition. What do we mean by safe? Who exactly feels unsafe? And what do they feel unsafe from?

The full interview is available on BBC iPlayer until 28 November. You can watch it here (starts at 27:40).

Ryan McChrystal

One response to “Newsnight: David Aaronovitch debates free speech and universities”

  1. AJG says:

    David Aaronovitchs article about banning speakers at universities is a masterpiece of conflation, linking fascists, Germaine Greer and transgender women in ways that make no logical sense. Fascists as most of us know are given to causing Holocausts, genocides, pogroms and kinder, kuche, kirche policies which most people would hate. Germaine Greer is a mostly very worthy feminist who’s views I know from experience the majority of trans women would share, but she does happen to have some very obnoxious views on trans women which tends to cloud our support for her. For example in describing a trans woman who had approached her after a talk in order to congratulate her on her feminism Ms Greer described the said trans woman as having the “hands of a rapist”. Trans women on the other hand are a very small minority, and even in the best possible circumstances I don’t think we will ever be more than a small minority. Whatever the individual views of trans women, and I have met those with both extreme right wing and extreme left wing views, I don’t think that we would be able to organise a pogrom or a Holocaust or a genocide between us even if we wanted to. So as far as new ideas go I would say that fascists have very largely old ideas, Ms Greer has mostly new ideas apart from her particular bugbear the trans woman, and trans women in general have no particular political agenda mostly being concerned with getting through the days in difficult circumstances.