Where Should Universities Draw The Line With Societies?
University students in study group
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Free Speech Versus Hate Speech: Where Should Universities Draw The Line With Societies?

Vicky Wilson February 20, 2022

From Hummus Society to Pro-Life Society, universities have a student group for everything. But when societies promote sexist ideals attacking women’s bodily autonomy, should they be banned or does this undermine their rights to freedom of speech?

In February 2021, Gavin Williamson proposed the implementation of a university “Free Speech Champion” to prevent censorship and cancel culture and end the ‘no platform’ policy often deployed against hate groups. Universities would hold reduced powers to tackle hate speech, potentially allowing bullying to spread on campus. Williamson justified this with the case of Felix Ngole, who he believed was wrongfully excluded from the University of Sheffield for comments he reportedly made about gay people (Pink News).

This raises the question: Where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?

Arguably, pro-life societies promote a dialogue on abortion and euthanasia that is necessary and unavoidable in a democratic society. Open discussion is more productive in resolving conflict than silencing the opposition. For example, the University of Birmingham Students for Life Society has engaged with speakers who have had abortions and pro-choice advocates, alongside pro-life speakers from a variety of religions and walks of life. They have even invited the pro-choice society to engage with their events.

However, pro-life attitudes cultivate shame and stigma around abortion and attack women’s bodily autonomy and right to choose. Is promoting this viewpoint hate speech in itself?

Universities are in a position of responsibility to protect students’ rights and wellbeing. They should not make them feel unsafe by accommodating, funding, and legitimising student groups if they incite misogyny and abuse.

Ultimately, the pro-choice versus pro-life debate is not going anywhere, and cutting off discussion would likely radicalise individuals. This would enable hate speech to spiral in an unmonitored climate. However, a University-funded For Life society is not a productive framework for these discussions.

Universities need to closely monitor conversations orbiting abortion in order to avoid hate speech. They should reformulate pro-life societies into balanced debate groups which equally address and converse with both sides of the argument, to prevent the deepening of students’ echo chambers. Universities should be promoting healthy debate and growth while adhering to a zero-tolerance policy.

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Vicky Wilson studies English and History at the University of Birmingham. and is the editor of the academic journal, URISE, and Vicky loves to write for Redbrick's paper in their free time. Vicky currently writes within the Freshered team as a freelancer. When Vicky is not writing, you’ll find them spending time at a roller disco or rock climbing in the Peaks.