In Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May argued that self-censorship in universities curtailed freedom of speech and could negatively impact Britain’s overall economic and social success.

May declared, “We want our universities not just to be places of learning but to be places where there can be open debate which is challenged and people can get involved in that. I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary, frankly. We want to see that innovation of thought [is] taking place in our universities. That’s how we develop as a country, as a society and as an economy.”

The Prime Minister spoke in answer to a question from Victoria Atkins, the Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle, who declared that freedom of speech was a “fundamental British value” undermined by university ‘safe spaces’, “where a sense of righteous entitlement by a minority of students that mean that their wish not to be offended shuts down debate.”

‘Safe spaces’, as defined by the Safe Space Network, are places where “anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.”

May’s comments come amid fierce and ongoing debate among academics, politicians and students about limits on the right to free speech on campus.

In December last year academics such as Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury, and Joanna Williams, education editor at Spiked, criticised criticised the “small but vocal minority of student activists” arguing for universities to become “safe spaces” in the Telegraph. They warned of attempts in universities to “immunise academic life from the intellectual challenge of debating conflicting views.” 

Oxford University’s Vice Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson has also given indicators that she may not be in favour of ‘safe spaces’, highlighting in her inaugural speech the duty of universities to ensure students “appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable”.

However, in May 2016, the university decided to issue “trigger warnings”, or alerts of upcoming content that might upset some in the audience, to undergraduate law students attending lectures on criminal law. Lecturers make these before covering material which is deemed “distressing”, particularly detailed descriptions of sexual offences which may have traumatic effects on rape victims.

Notably, Marine Le Pen’s speech at the Oxford Union in February last year attracted significant protest, with some 300 students demonstrating outside the Union building, disputing Le Pen’s right to speak publicly in Oxford under free speech laws.

As of 2015, the University’s official code of practice states that “the University believes that a culture of free, open and robust discussion can be achieved only if all concerned avoid needlessly offensive or provocative action and language.”