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The challenge of free speech on campus

The debate over an absolute freedom of speech on campus is one of LSE’s biggest challenges. This complex and broad debate is one that will spring up again and again within university life. It covers more than political discourse – it’s everything from who LSE allows to study, what we study, the books in our library, the alumni we celebrate, and more.

LSE has often been at the forefront of these debates, such as the international interest in cases of controversial student admissions. Last year, the university came under fire for its controversial admission of Peter Cytanovic (who openly took part in the neo-nazi Charlottesville protest back in August 2017), and the son of former Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, back in 2008. Critics argued that by admitting them, LSE became complicit in views which were polar opposites to many who study here. 

It’s become a cliché that students are too eager to call out  “examples” of free speech, whether this be racist halloween costumes, or group chats (such of those last year at Warwick, discussing which of their female peers would be easiest to rape). 

And how could we forget that globe? Diffcult to miss on campus, the globe caused a lot of negative attention for LSE from everyone from Palestinian students and their allies, to the Chinese government. Whilst censorship of the art installation is not in the control of the LSE Directorate, it tapped into the core of the problem with this absolutist stance on ‘free speech’: it hurts the very people it attempts to protect: the students.

The dilemma that appears with free speech in a university context, is that there is little bargaining room between the arguments for and against, in order to resolve these tensions. LSE, as a university, is a place for free speech to thrive – every student has the same rights to explore, research, learn, and grow. At the same time, the ideal of total free speech is often used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Many students use their ‘inalienable right to liberty’ in order to continue hatred of marginalised groups without accountability for their actions. These defenders vilify the term ‘political correctness’, in an attempt to turn a blind eye to the extensive history of hate that these groups have faced. 

What is often forgotten, a point that seems obvious to say, is that the dilemma of ‘free speech’ is not a university-specific problem; it’s part of a wider epidemic of increasing levels of partisanship within our lives. The constant retelling of the cliché that it’s only a problem for universities means that people in all corners of society can skip accountability for their words or actions. This debate is not one that I can solve, as a student lucky enough to have a soapbox within the student body, however we must educate ourselves on campus and beyond the struggle that marginalised groups have fought (and are still fighting) for rights, recognition, and respect.

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