Thursday, May 26 2016

Student Rights and free speech on campus

There is an article in today’s Daily Telegraph titled ‘Academic who backed suicide bombings to speak on campus’. The article refers to the invitation of British-based Azzam Tamimi to speak at an event hosted by Queen Mary University’s Palestine Solidarity Society next Tuesday, called ‘One State or Two State Solution’. Tamimi is described in the article as holding extremist views. The University, however, have defended his invitation to speak on the grounds of freedom of speech.

From the Daily Telegraph:

“Student campaigners have hit out after Azzam Tamimi was invited to attend the event at Queen Mary University on Tuesday.

“Mr Tamimi has previous said he would be willing to blow himself up in Israel if given “the opportunity” and is a supporter of Hamas, which is a banned group in the UK.

“The move will raise fresh concerns over the spread of extremist views on campuses but the university last night insisted it was defending freedom of expression.

“In 2004, he claimed sacrificing oneself was a “noble cause” and said he would blow himself up in a strike against Israel he was allowed back in to the country.

“"It is the straight way to pleasing my God and I would do it if I had the opportunity,” he told the BBC at the time.”

The article cites a statement by the group Student Rights which “said it was “bad enough” that Tamimi should be invited onto a campus, adding: “However, what is worse is that not only will there be no balance to his hate filled views, but that the panel he will speak alongside have all declared outspoken opposition to Israel in the past.”

The article continues with the University’s position on the issue, “A spokeswoman for the university said “freedom of expression and the sharing of ideas and beliefs are at the heart of Queen Mary’s ethos”.

“University Principal, Professor Simon Gaskell, said: “In making these arrangements we neither endorse nor deny the views expressed; rather we are allowing freedom of expression within the law.

““Furthermore, we are implicitly attributing to our university community the intelligence and powers of discrimination to judge for themselves the merits or otherwise of opinions and beliefs presented to them.”

It is a credit to the University that it is defending freedom of speech and believes in the ability of students to judge for themselves the merits of arguments advanced by speakers attending events. After all, universities are spaces where students should be encouraged to stretch their ability to think critically. Moreover, a 2011 report on Freedom of Speech on Campus by Universities UK made a strong case for the preservation and advancement of freedom of speech on campus stating, “unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged”.

“It is precisely by being places where ideas and beliefs can be tested without fear of control, and where rationality underpins the pursuit of knowledge, that universities have come to represent one of our most important safeguards against views and ideologies that divide and undermine our open society.”

The position of Student Rights on the other hand, suggests that students are incapable at an intellectual level of making such judgments, preferring bans on speakers instead of permitting the creation of spaces where free and critical debates can take place and where arguments which one disagrees with may be challenged. They expressed a similar view in 2009 when Hizb-ut-Tahrir was prevented from speaking at Queen Mary University, where Student Rights came out as opposed to the group’s invitation.

Yet ironically, Student Rights have, in defending their views against ‘extremism’  and ‘bias’ in the past, cited those who themselves hold troubling views, such as Benny Morris, the Israeli historian who believes that “mass Muslim penetration into the West and their settlement there is creating a dangerous internal threat”. Their arbitrary positions on free speech however come of little surprise given that the director of Student Rights, Raheem Kassam, is also aligned to the Henry Jackson Society as its campaigns director. As we asserted in our article on ‘Selective censorship’ last week, the value of free speech must be applied universally if those who uphold it are to hold any credibility.

This content has been locked. You can no longer post any comment.
If you are experiencing problems please contact

Engage Publications

Books of Interest