Our nation is becoming ever more obviously protective of freedom of speech yet terribly cautious about being politically correct.
In that sense, the phrase “freedom of speech,” far from being liberating as its origins intended, is rather like a double-edged sword with the potential to take anyone’s eye out who dares stand within a two-mile radius of its wielder.
On either side of the sharpened ends, this time around are some of Britain’s best-known universities and Conservative MPs, who have criticised senior university figures for explicitly speaking in favour of pro-Remain.
Chris Heaton-Harris, a Tory MP and Brexit supporter, has since been accused of “McCarthyism” after writing to university vice-chancellors asking them to send him information on what their lecturers are telling students about Britain’s departure from the EU.
Actually, forget the sword analogy, for this predicament resembles more of a hand grenade. BOOM- academics accuse Heaton-Harris of restricting academic freedom and of course, The Daily Mail had a field day and claimed professors at Durham university were terrorising pro-Leave students (who actually appears just to be a student, singular) with their pro-Remain crusades. Chaos ensues; three more hyperbolic headlines later and I have to lie down for a second with a copy of 1984 over my face.
Heaton-Harris, of course, tried simmering the pot by saying he was simply asking for universities to provide him with “information.” This was, as another Tory MP, Andrew Rosindell, put it, to ensure universities are “presenting a factual account of Brexit;” which may sound innocent enough, considering students pay thousands to learn information with at least a little bit of truth to it.
However, more hot pepper sauce is further added to the soup (still with the pot analogy, keep up), when pro-Leave students profess that they are the victims in all of this.
One Durham University student said: ‘A professor got quite aggressive towards us when we were running a street stall in the run-up to the vote. He said we were “doing the same thing the Nazis did.”’
My attempts at analogies aside, when one starts comparing 20-year-old students to Nazis and making overarching assumptions that the pro-Leave MPs in question are about to lead the war on Communism all over again, historical parallelisms begin to lose all meaning. Come on now.
“If we take away the intellectual power of debate, we risk tearing up the very foundations on which our academic institutions were built”
The primary reason as to why Heaton-Harris simply leading ‘an academic inquiry’ is wrong is because as an MP, he is in a position of power and influence and has the potential to silence universities on a topic that not only directly concerns them (as well as having thousands of EU national staff and students, UK universities attract more than £836m in research grants and contracts from EU sources) but also shapes the futures of their students.
In fact, it has emerged that Heaton-Harris may have breached EU law with his attempts to find out what universities are teaching about Brexit.
A letter written to the MP by politics students at LSE, they accuse him of violating the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which includes statements on academic freedom.
His position not only as an MP but one of a pro-Leave stance is what turns this innocent request for information into an attack on freedom of speech. Think back to how during Brexit, those who preached about the rights of refugees were branded as being supporters of terrorism, and those, including myself, who experienced hate crime post-Brexit, were accused of being over-sensitive Lefties.
If we take away the intellectual power of debate, discussion and political freedom, then we risk tearing up the very foundations on which our academic institutions were built.
Censorship is the very weapon that is used to silence the voices of social minorities, and if we continue to entertain the attack on freedom of speech, it might just be the sword with the sharper end.