The right to free speech is limitless and without boundaries. But that doesn’t mean one can openly offend others, as hate speech laws prevent these actions. The British government, ironically, seems to disagree.
Just last month, legislators in Westminster quietly passed a law that prevents universities across the country from barring certain speakers on their campus. The move has been heralded as a cunning and much-needed defence of free speech in universities. This comes especially at a time when schools across the globe are being transformed into battlefields between ideological factions from “alt right” and “regressive left.” But regardless of political alignment and all opinions aside, this mentality of “protecting free speech” fails to properly address the horrifying precedent it sets, particularly in the realm of hate speech.
I won’t pretend that the mentality held by many that the extreme censorship of anything and everything deemed even remotely offensive (something Karl Popper called the “paradox of toleration”) is justifiable and likely to solve the issues minority students face on university campuses. Free speech, of course, is a vital characteristic – perhaps the most important characteristic – of a democratic society. With regards to a university environment – one made up of students of various walks of life – safe spaces, or at least the underlying concept behind the phenomenon, only cause further division by shutting out the many issues minority students face on a daily basis. Free speech matters, and thus should not be readily abandoned in any society on the pretence of collective vexation.
That being said, however, there are still times when lines must be drawn. For example: overtly hateful public speakers.
Though it’s safe to say that someone with as much universal notoriety as Milo Yiannopoulous would not bother making the trek to our sleepy three street town, I would proudly take part in any attempt to bar his appearance should the occasion arise. This does not contradict my opinions on the necessity of universal and unencumbered free speech, because (and this is importance) free speech and hate speech are not the same thing.
Someone guilty of hate speech is legally defined by the British government as “a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting … if they intend thereby to stir up racial hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.” The vocabulary is of course vague, fickle, and up for interpretation. However, the key word is intends. Therein lies the key difference between generic free speech and hate speech. An opinion is an opinion, always rightful, regardless of morality or one’s own views. However, the minute an opinion is used as a weapon, it becomes an offence. I think most people can agree that Yiannopoulous, deemed by many the “Internet’s biggest troll,” acts out of intent to offend.
So how, then, could a law like this possibly come to fruition? Why work to blurry the fine lines between free speech and hate speech, no less in a diverse society like a university campus? This is not the defence of free speech, but the validation of hate speech; not the solution to a problem, but rather evidence of a complacent willingness to allow existing problems to be exacerbated.
St Andrews is no place for hate speech and those who condone it. At such a pivotal moment in history, it is vital that we do our part to continue to keep it that way.