In a recent article for The Spectator, James Delingpole discussed what he views as Oxbridge’s ‘snowflake generation’. He portrays Oxbridge students as ‘snowflakes’ who are uncomfortable to practice their freedom of speech, “creating a sterile, conformist, PC monoculture of earnest state—indoctrinated Stakhanovites”. Yet Cherwell’s second investigation of this term shows evidence to the contrary. In a poll conducted by C+, it was evident that freedom of speech is important to Oxford students—79.9 per cent of students felt like freedom of speech is important as part of their university experience. The University states that: “Free speech is the lifeblood of a university. It enables the pursuit of knowledge. It helps us approach truth.”
However, the poll revealed mixed opinions amongst Oxford students about their experience and the future of freedom of speech. Whilst the majority of students believe that freedom of speech is important to their experience at university, 27.9 per cent of those who responded to the survey felt that their freedom of speech had been restricted by the University or their College. This shows that, whilst freedom of speech is highly valued by Oxford students, it’s not necessarily the reality for some.
Our results show trends in relation to the restriction of freedom of speech that Oxford students feel, between those who identify as right-wing and left-wing.
65.8 per cent of students who responded to the survey identified as left-wing or centre-left, but only 15.3 per cent of these respondents felt that their freedom of speech had been restricted. This shows a marked difference to the right-wing responses. 20.8 per cent of students who responded identified as right-wing or centre-right, and 57.1 per cent of those felt that their freedom of speech had been restricted by the University or their College. This was a common view amongst surveyed students.
Many students addressed the political issues that surround freedom of speech, viewing it as a passive issue among students, rather than an institutionalised ‘ban’. Many of the comments received in the survey discuss the fear of right- wing students in addressing opinions or issues that were contrary to the “mainstream left-wing viewpoint”.
The survey also found that 65 per cent of students think that freedom of speech in Oxford is under threat. This also relates to the left-wing and right-wing split in responses. 49.7 per cent of left wing responses thought freedom of speech was under threat, whilst 78.6 per cent of right wing students thought freedom of speech was under threat. These trends tie in to questions of freedom of speech in political thought over time—a more left-wing approach supports the silencing of some groups’ freedom of speech to promote the freedom of speech of those that may be marginalised in society, whilst right-wing thinkers tend to believe in having an equal platform for all voices.
This debate between platforming versus freedom of speech was evident in our responses. In their comments, many students expressed their opinion on the differences between platforming and freedom of speech.
Although only 7.1 per cent of students who responded had protested against a speaker at the Oxford Union, many students expressed their opinion on the debate on the merits of providing a platform for controversial speakers. One anonymous student said: “I think the difference between freedom of speech and being given a platform needs to be borne in mind constantly when considering this issue—one is a right, the other is a privilege.” Among the chants of protestors at the talk by Corey Lewandowski (Donald Trump’s former campaign manager) in late 2016 was the chant: “This is free speech, that is a platform.”
Another response to the survey advocated this no-platforming approach to speakers at Oxford venues: “In my view, refusing to host a speaker whose views are harmful and directly affect marginalised members of society is a perfectly legitimate action. There’s a distinct line between free speech and hate speech, and the rejection of the latter does not even come close to an abolishment of the former.”
Another student raised the point that students who protest against speakers at the Union are allowed to exercise their freedom of speech as it is “not threatening the free speech of anyone. Protestors on the street do not have the position of power over a speaker at the union to silence them in any way.” But, contrary to this, some students expressed the “irony” of protestors against plat- forming, suggesting that speakers at the Union should also have the right to practice their freedom of speech. Whilst some view platforming as a right of free speech, others viewed it as a way of giving voice to hate speech and discrimination.
Among the concerns expressed in the responses of our survey, students also offered solutions to the perceived threat of freedom of speech among Oxford students. Some students stressed the importance of discussion and debate as the way forward—”he whole purpose of free speech is to allow ideas to be critically analysed. We are entitled to speak freely, but others are entitled to call us out on what we say”
Other students highlighted the importance of the need for a safe environment, either within College or JCR meetings, for every voice to be heard. As many students felt that freedom of speech is especially restricted or feared in environments that are deemed as ‘safe’ and ‘open’ like JCR meetings or around college, a common verdict was that opinions should be conversed and open rather than condemned.