Research on University Free Expression

By Co-Founder Carl Sacklen

One of TalkPolitics’ key campaigns is the protection and enhancement of free expression. We believe that an open embrace of debate and discourse is vital for a healthy democracy; an informed voter base means greater accountability and a more comprehensive range of ideas being considered.

At many universities, however, students have started rejecting academic freedom and free expression in the name of preventing offence. Whilst well-meaning, this stance is damaging because it entrenches dogma and virtually removes any element of debate on topics that are remotely controversial. 

Universities are places of discovery, and with that comes an inevitable element of discomfort. Discourse challenges students’ existing opinions and can be unsettling, but TalkPolitics holds it to be true that this process is ultimately beneficial for both the individual and our community.  When ideas clash and people challenge one another through rational debate, their inherent weaknesses and strengths become clear. From this, good ideas can be refined, bad ideas dismissed, and a step towards social progress achieved. 

The purpose of safe spaces is to protect students from racist or homophobic views and speakers. TalkPolitics’ rejection of safe spaces, however, should not be equated with an endorsement of these views and speakers. To the contrary, TalkPolitics despises these ideas as much as the next person. Unlike many students, however, we believe the best way to reject these ideas is not by sweeping them under the rug and hoping they go away, but rather to create an environment where irrational opinions are dissected and subsequently rejected using rational debate. It is only when irrational views are directly challenged that they can rightfully be consigned to the past. 

The current preference by many students of covering their ears and hoping the irrational opinions go away only makes those opinions fester and grow. If universities sustain debate, they become unsafe spaces for irrational stances – be they racist, homophobic, or otherwise – because those ideas will falter when faced with logical reasoning. This allows for sustainable social progress through the elimination and well-grounded rejection of irrational viewpoints. 

Free expression also benefits the individual. It allows for the development of key practical skills such as analysis and debate as well as objective reasoning. Beyond this, when faced with inquiry, students will find themselves examining dogma and subsequently strengthening their own opinions. On a macro-scale, this leads to a more informed society. 

Free expression is therefore vital to a healthy democracy. A free press and freedom of assembly allows us to challenge views we find distasteful and speak up against those in power. The non-platforming of speakers and rejection of free expression is therefore a blatant rejection of the accountability that forms the basis of democratic society. 

As we outline in our paper (link below) TalkPolitics is calling for policies that protect free expression on university campuses, namely:

  • Clear policies that enforce a right to hear and be heard, for all parties involved. 
  • Ensure an atmosphere of debate is maintained using staff representatives and 'question and answer' sessions.  
  • A greater abundance and awareness of mental health resources.
  • Dissemination of more information about free expression.  

These policies would ensure that universities are not a sanctuary but rather an arena where ideas are confronted and informed conclusions can be drawn. Having one’s opinions challenged and even changed completely is not comfortable, but rational engagement with ideas allows students to strengthen their own values and move forward with a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.

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