Campus Free Speech: It's Apathy That Will Save Students

University of Manchester signage
Signage on a building in part of the campus at the University of Manchester, England, May 25. Free speech at university may not be as much of a problem as many fear. Phil Noble/Reuters

A confession: I didn't really throw myself into campus life when I was at university. Or not the kind you can put on a CV. If there'd been a society for smoking roll-ups in the garden at parties and trying to look interesting, I'd have been general secretary.

As it was, my life outside of lessons can best be summed up by an interaction with a sometime housemate, who I won't name because he's now a much more successful journalist than me. He came back from a student newspaper editorial meeting to find me ensconced amid the rising damp in our basement playing Fallout 3. "I've got my extra-curricular, and you've got your Xbox," he said. It wasn't 100 percent accurate, but it wasn't a million miles off the mark.

This is not an attitude I'd advocate. I urge anyone doing their A levels now to develop interests outside their degree beyond watching Daria on YouTube. But at least it gives me a different perspective. I'd wager that most people now working as journalists weren't much like me when they were at university. They did the student paper (to be fair, so did I, but only insofar as my friend gave me a spoof music news column called "The Lowedown"). They joined the Labour club or (maybe) the Conservative society and, furthest from me of all, maybe they even cared about student politics.

Perhaps that helps explain why, when I read the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)'s report into free speech on British campuses, published Sunday, I had a different take on it from many of my colleagues in the press. "Students back gag on free speech," screamed the headline in The Sunday Times. And the survey, which interviewed 1,006 British students about issues of free expression on campus, did have stats to back that up. It found that three-quarters of students would ban speakers that offended them, and almost half wanted universities to be declared "safe spaces," where debate takes places only within strict rules.

But I noticed different points. One line in the summary leaped out: "On many questions, the most popular response was the most neutral one," the report concluded. That would have been me: "What? We have an SU? They did what? Oh, um, I don't know." Another line seems even more crucial: "The overwhelming majority of full-time undergraduate students—more than eight-out-of-ten—currently feel unrestricted in what they can say."

So just to pose a question: do those in the "students are killing free speech" brigade ever fear they might be overstating the case?

Yes, there are important arguments on both sides of this debate. On the one hand, universities do have a precious role in promoting freedom of expression that some students do not fully grasp. On the other, it's no bad thing that academics are being forced to consider how their ideas and teaching styles intersect with the experiences of a student population more diverse and outspoken than any before them.

But either way, when the "vast majority" of students are rubbing along quite happily, saying and thinking whatever they feel, do we have cause to be descending into the moral panic in which our chattering classes are currently engaged?

Because there's a simple truth here that many are missing. For most students, the SU, or the NUS or whatever society of tinpot Stalinists has made it into the papers this week, are not where they do their speaking and thinking. They do it in the pub, or round the Playstation, or on the sports pitch (full disclosure: I didn't get out there much, either). If Germaine Greer does get no-platformed (not something I support) most students will be blissfully unaware of it, though they might well still read her, for free, on The Guardian website. They will spend their Fridays and Saturdays (and Sundays, and Mondays, and Tuesdays…) communing with each other in a spirit of full and frank discourse at a cornucopia of gaudily-titled lo-price U.K. garage nights. And so it should be.

And if I haven't set your mind at rest, consider this. If you're worried about a creeping hysteria among the young, a willingness to plead offense before the debate is complete, you won't fight it with more hysteria. By crying wolf about the death of free speech in Great Britain in 2016, you look madder than any campus Socialist Workers Party organizer I've ever encountered. If that doesn't give you pause for thought, I don't know what will.

Read a Newsweek cover story on this issue, focusing on U.S. college campuses, here.