Padraig Reidy: Who can speak and who must be silent?

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

Who decides what is acceptable behaviour? And what is not? What is mainstream and what is radical? Who can speak and who must be silent?

At the moment, British authorities have found themselves engaged in a frenzy of defining what is acceptable and what is not, well beyond the bounds of the law courts. The government’s new counter terror bill has put the onus on public bodies to prevent individuals from becoming radicalised. The measure is clearly aimed at university campuses, which have come under increased scrutiny due to the unchecked presence of organisations such as Hizb Ut Tahrir, a group that has been calling for the rejection of secular democracy in favour of an Islamic Caliphate long before it was popular.

There is no legal sanction for failure to perform this duty, but the vagueness of the proposed law should worry everyone: there is no attempt to define what “radicalism” might mean. In the days before the UK took Islamism seriously, animal rights radicals were seen as a threat to peace. Before that, Irish republicans, and so on. As recent revelations on police surveillance have shown, everyone from activists to comedians to bereaved mothers can be cast as potential enemies of the state.

A recent example should give us pause for thought. Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson spoke at Oxford Union on 26 November. Robinson, currently on licenced release from prison, claimed at the beginning of the talk that he had been warned by police that there were certain things he could not say, lest he find himself back behind bars. Not, apparently, issues that could, for example, have constituted contempt of court, or the other limitations most of British society accepts. Merely opinions.

This is bad enough, but with the new counter-terror measures, could university authorities have put pressure on the union not to host their speaker of choice at all? (You may say the union is independent of the university, but it still has the power to sanction students).

What does this matter to you? You are not Tommy Robinson, and you may not even think he should be allowed to speak at the Oxford Union, or anywhere. You believe Tommy Robinson is a bigot, and plain wrong, so what’s the problem?

But think for a moment.

You’re a good person, aren’t you? I mean, at least you try to be a good person, I’m sure. You’d never throw your sandwich wrapper out of the car window. You certainly wouldn’t steal, or cheat at board games.

And you’re definitely not a bigot. You might, at certain times, find yourself applying certain stereotypes to the people you see around yourself, but your internal Jiminy Cricket, or whatever Disney avatar keeps you in line, will soon correct that. You might every so often laugh at jokes about people of other races or religions, but that’s because you understand the context. You can laugh at these things precisely because you are not bigoted: you are laughing at racism, not with it.

You might, occasionally, get frustrated at the apparently new-fangled language of online social justice activists, but you realise this is probably your fault more than theirs. You’re all right.

What if you’re not, though? What if you woke up one day, the world had tilted 180 degrees, it was summer when it was supposed to be snowing, and you were all wrong? About everything. Puppies are there to be poked, pensioners exist solely to be mugged by those younger and fitter than them, and overt, aggressive racism is not just condoned but encouraged.

This is not to suggest a moral equivalence between racism and anti-racism, or political correctness and bigotry. Because there is none. Not being a bigot is clearly better than being a bigot.

But it is a useful, simple thought experiment to carry out whenever one is tempted to excuse censorship, or even support it: what if my apparently good, apparently sensible positions were the one seen as utterly beyond the pale, and those of the person who is now being censored were the ones that held sway?

It is perhaps a refusal to recognise this idea that leads to the often-used phrase, “this isn’t a free speech issue”. Shutting down a debate on a university campus?  Not a free speech issue, but about safe spaces. Calling for a television programme to be cancelled? Not about free speech, but about appropriate channels for expression.

Anti-censorship campaigners are often portrayed as “free speech fundamentalists”, but in fact, a genuine sense of doubt is what should motivate all defences of free speech. You have to ask yourself time and time again: what if I was seen as completely wrong? Would it be better to have a society where people argued against me, however vehemently and vigorously? Or would I prefer a society where the government, the police and the courts were entitled to decide what I should and should not say?

This article was posted on Dec 4, 2014 at

Finances threaten independent student media

Daily Free Press

Independent student newspapers struggle in an increasingly digital world. Advertising revenue is shrinking. Budding journalists must learn how to fill the gap while maintaining news coverage free of administration censorship.

Of the more than 500 student newspapers in the US, Index spoke with two papers about their work and how they finance themselves independently.

“We really value our independent status because it allows us to be critical of the administration and be a watchdog of our university,” Kyle Plantz, editor-in-chief at Boston University’s Daily Free Press, said in an email interview.

The paper formed in 1970 after the university’s then president John Silber cut funding to two campus publications to prevent coverage of Kent State protests. As a result they merged to become the Free Press.

In recent years, Daily Free Press staff has written articles covering topics on campus such as gender neutral housing and students’ issues with the Student Activities Office, which oversees student organisations.  In late 2011-2012, the paper provided extensive coverage of the arrest of two ice hockey players charged with sexual assault.

Nicole Brown, editor-in-chief at New York University’s Washington Square Press, also said her paper acts as a watchdog on the NYU administration.

“We need to be able to question our university and present information to the community,” Brown said. “We also need to be able to voice our opinions without fear of being punished for those opinions.”

The Washington Square Press keeps an open dialogue on campus through its feature, NYU Reacts. It includes students’ thoughts on topics ranging from ISIS subway threats to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The paper also publishes articles on sensitive issues, such as a November 2013 piece in which NYU faculty express concern over the London campus’s rapid expansion.

Many student papers struggle to maintain steady revenue. Brown said the Washington Square Press relies on advertising, sold and managed by student staff.

“With a move toward more online content, there are more opportunities to sell ad spaces online, as well as in print,” Brown said.

For the Free Press, nearly $70,000 (£44,576.05) debt to their printers recently threatened to shutter their publication. They switched from publishing four days a week to once a week and, on 10 November, launched a crowd-sourcing campaign.

The paper surpassed their goal and raised over $82,000 in just three days, with Daily Free Press alumnus Bill O’Reilly donating $10,000 and local businessman Ernie Boch Jr. donating $50,000.

“[Reducing publication], along with cutting some other costs, we are able to continue to receive ad revenue and sustain our weekly print edition,” Plantz said. “We are assessing how we want to use [the extra funds] and what will be beneficial to our organization in the future.”

Independent newspapers must find a way to financially sustain themselves or campuses will lose reliable, student-run news.

As Plantz said, “We are one of the only outlets that allow students to have a voice, question authority, and be a place for students, faculty, staff, and the administration to come together to learn about what’s happening on campus.”

This article was originally posted 28 November on

University: A safe place for safe ideas

Students defy the protest ban imposed by the University of London to speak out against the privatisation of university support services. (Photo: Peter Marshall/Demotix)

In February, students defied a protest ban imposed by the University of London to speak out against the privatisation of university support services. (Photo: Peter Marshall/Demotix)

There is a strong attitude across university campuses that censorship is a good tool for the benefit of a multicultural and inclusive society, that respects the values of all its members, freeing them from being exposed to anything they may find “harmful”.

Many students now sign up to policies that promote “safe space” throughout the university campus from the clubs and bars, to the seminar room and lecture theatres. Most of the time these policies go unnoticed and unchallenged as the bureaucrats strengthen their grip over the university and its members, and political activity wains under prevailing conformity and debateophobia.

These policies exist in antithesis to the true purpose of institutions of higher learning – to debate every idea and challenge every prejudice.

The promotion of safe spaces has been the preserve of National Union of Students (NUS) officials and university management for a number of years, seeking to create inclusive and welcoming environment for a growing student body, and attract more students from minority and/or vulnerable backgrounds. Originally the policy specifically dealt with the LGBT community. The US group Advocates for Youth describe safe space as one in which every individual can “relax and be fully self-expressed” free from feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe.

The University of Bristol Students’ Union expresses the policy aptly: “The principle values [adopted from the NUS’ ‘safe space’ policy] are to ensure an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement” (my emphasis); ranging from freedom from physical and criminal activity, to being free from having one’s culture and beliefs questioned.

In the November of last year the LGBT society at the University of Liverpool lodged a complaint against the Islamic Society’s (ISoc) hosting of Cleric Mufti Ismail Menk due to his homophobic views, appealing to the Liverpool Guild of Students safe space policy. Despite the meeting being private and only open the ISoc members, the LGBT believed that the events would impinge on their “freedoms and happiness”, and would rather the Liverpool Guild of Students ban the event than have their lifestyles judged by others.

Even university institutions themselves have codified what free speech should look like on campus. The London School of Economics requires speakers to be screened. Bolton University details topics considered to be outside of the realm of debate, because of their controversial or sensitive nature, from animal experimentation to sexual abuse of children and paedophilia, and, most worryingly, “where the subject matter might be considered to be of a blasphemous nature”.

Given that such august institutions have taken on the narrative of safety first, it is no surprise that this has only strengthened students as censors resolve.

Last month the student union at the University of Derby revealed that it would be continuing its ban on the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in an upcoming debate in the run up to the 22 May European and local council elections. This follows its refusal to allow David Gale, UKIP candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections of 2012, to take part in a Q&A session. This censorship and conformism came under the tired old banner of ‘no platform’, with the SU contending that they had the right to create a space in which students feel safe while studying on campus.

The safety-first mentality also pervades throughout the on-going No More Page 3 and anti-lad culture campaigns that are swarming across campuses in the UK. Painting a regressive view of human beings the campaigns believe that a bad joke, a bit of over zealous flirting and seeing a pair of breasts irredeemably damage women who come into have to look at them and creates an “unrealistic and potentially damaging picture of what women’s bodies look like”.

Unsurprisingly, whether it’s No More Page 3 or the ban of Blurred Lines, any attempt to engage in open and critical discussion of the issues has been met with scorn. Lucy Pedrick, of Sheffield Students’ Union council, believes a “referendum [on the banning of the sale of The Sun newspaper on campus] would not be a fair debate”, keeping the discussions behind closed doors for those who are members of the right forums and councils.

It appears then that today’s students are too vulnerable to be exposed to any robust and challenging discussion. This grows out of a culture that has promoted the idea that every individual is emotionally vulnerable and cannot cope with a growing range of encounters and experiences. It is now believed that we live in a world of unmitigated risks and problems, only waiting around the corner to trip you up again, and our ability to deal with everyday problems seems to have diminished. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, vulnerability has become conceptualised a central component of the human condition and “contemporary culture unwittingly encourages people to feel traumatised and depressed by experiences hitherto regarded as routine”, from unwanted cat-calling to the discussion of dangerous ideas.

It’s a far cry from the tradition out of which the theory of liberal education and the modern university was born. The period of the Enlightenment was led by the rallying call of Immanuel Kant – ‘Sapere aude!’ – dare to know and dare to use your own understanding in the creation and formation of your own opinions. However, this is the reverse of what we are seeing today as debate is closed down and speech is censored on campus all in the name of safety.

If we are to recapture the campus, lead the progress of human knowledge, and create an active and engaged citizenry towards progressive social change, it’s free speech and expression we must engage in.

This article was posted on 25 April 2014 at

Privacy vs technology: UC Davis and Gmail conundrum

A California university — in fact, my university — has decided to end a trial outsourcing outsourcing its staff and faculty emails to Google’s Gmail, citing privacy as their primary concern. Officials at the University of California-Davis released an internal statement on 30 April saying they did not believe Google exhibits the dedication needed to retain the privacy of their users, and declared an end to the 8-week trial with the company.

The statement said:

Although preliminary feedback from volunteer testers was positive, many other faculty expressed concern that our campus’ commitment to protecting the privacy of their communications is not demonstrated by Google and that the appropriate safeguards are neither in place at this time nor planned for the near future.

The announcement also made reference to a letter released by privacy commissioners in 10 countries the week before, criticising the Google’s lack of concern regarding privacy involving Google Buzz and Street View. The letter claims Google “violated the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control the use of their personal information”.

Peter Siegel, the university’s chief information officer, said the faculty were concerned that sensitive research could leaked.

In an interview with the education and technology magazine Converge, Siegel said, “We really want what Google promises to the community to be consistent with what they state in writing. So I think there was a sense that, well, it doesn’t really say clearly that they’re going to protect this information the way we need it to be protected.”

This decision doesn’t directly affect people like me — undergraduate and graduate students will continue to use DavisMail, the Gmail system for the university, until further notice. After living through my first year with our old, slow and problem-riddled GeckoMail, the UC Davis-made email system, I’m relieved I’ll still have my Gmail account.

I can, however, understand why our professors and researchers would need more privacy. Many of them work on confidential projects. Their work could be jeopardised if hackers gained access their information.

UC Davis isn’t the only American university to express concerns. Yale University delayed its switch to Gmail in March because of worries revolving around “cloud computing”— information transferring between virtual servers — technological risks and ideological concerns. Yale computer science professor, Michael Fischer, said one reason they stalled the project was the fear of losing control of their data.

I’m torn between privacy and a working email account. In more than a few classes, professors and classmates have been able to share information with me via Google Docs and Calendar, making my life easier.

The university is currently looking at creating a new host system or strengthening their existing one, and if it’s anything like GeckoMail, this could hinder researchers’ ability to store email and information they need in the future. At this point, UC Davis students need to ask if we need 100 per cent privacy or mediocre technology.

Elizabeth Stitt Elizabeth attends the University of California-Davis, studying international relations and political science