Safe or sanitised: Free speech and the right to be offensive
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In 2017, freedom of speech is as vital and divisive a topic as it has ever been. The extent to which we should be free to discuss, promote and hear controversial or unsavoury ideas is argued over in the mainstream media and social media alike. In Ireland, several controversial figures such as Kevin Myers and George Hook have been ousted from their jobs due to free speech controversies.
In universities, this contestation is especially vibrant, and debates about what speakers and views should be allowed spill over into wider society. Recent years have witnessed the rise in the demand for safe spaces, where students can discuss free from exposure to unsavoury ideas. Trigger warnings, which flag potentially unsettling content in the curriculum, are being embraced by increasing numbers of lecturers. And no-platforming, long a strategy designed to disinvite and bar speakers who hold particular views, has enjoyed something of a renaissance: in 2017 Ireland’s Israeli ambassador Ze’ev Boker’s speaking engagement at Trinity College Dublin was the latest to be cancelled amid protests by students, and controversial speakers rarely appear at Irish universities without strong objection. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and spiked magazine produce annual reports on the state of free speech in the US and the UK respectively, and their findings highlight curtailments of expression at almost every level of student life. No such survey has been carried out in Ireland, but safe spaces, no-platforming and trigger warnings are common to Irish, US and UK universities, and beyond. But does this necessarily tell a problematic story? In this Dublin Salon debate, we hope to examine the question of free speech in universities and wider society from a variety of perspectives.
Do speakers’ bans, trigger warnings and safe spaces enhance or degrade the intellectual life experienced by Irish students? Defenders of safe spaces argue that they offer vulnerable students an opportunity to develop their ideas at their own space but critics say that there is there a risk of narrowed perspectives if difficult topics are simply shunned. And what of society more broadly? If the media remove all views that are dubbed offensive, does the problem go beyond the threat to press freedom and create a danger that public debate itself becomes a sanitized echo-chamber? Or alternatively should we become more aware that disagreeable and offensive ideas – which are now seen by some as actively harmful to personhood and especially to minority groups – are outdated and instead all start watching our language?