The Freedom Blog

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By Laurence Wilkinson

The ability to disagree well seems to be a quality that is increasingly missing in society today. While we hold up notions such as respect and tolerance as being values that are essential to democratic societies, the reality is that they become meaningless if we cannot agree to disagree on the more controversial topics of our day, particularly where those topics invoke strong personal views. Even when we strongly disagree, we must allow others the freedom to make their case to the public or we risk jeopardizing our collective right to freedom of expression.

Two recent news stories from the United Kingdom illustrate this point clearly, showing how free speech can be significantly undermined by a select few in authority who have opted to censor certain views from the public square.

The first story concerned the University of Oxford – one of the most prestigious Universities in the world. At the beginning of each academic year, a wide group of clubs and societies are invited to participate in events called “freshers’ fairs” where they advertise their activities to incoming students. However, it recently came to light that a student body at one of the Colleges took the decision to ban the Christian Union from attending their freshers’ fair. The decision was said to be justified on the basis that the Christian Union’s presence at the fair could “harm” new students who were looking to settle into Oxford.

When the decision and the related correspondence came to light, it was met with disbelief. How could a select few perpetrate such an obvious violation of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of association with such ease? While the organisers may have felt that their actions had protected the incoming student group from the “harmful” views of Christians, it was not a judgment call for them to make. Their efforts to create an environment that was void of views with which that they disagreed was a failure to facilitate an open marketplace of ideas that should be available for all students.

In response to significant national media coverage, the College ultimately passed a motion condemning the decision and ensured that the Christian Union would be able to fully participate in future freshers’ fairs. While the final outcome affirmed the importance of freedom of expression in the University context, the same corrosive mentality that led to the censure was on display at a London Borough Council meeting the very next day.

Ealing Borough Council, in West London, passed a motion that sought to ban pro-life groups from holding vigils outside of an abortion facility in response to complaints from pro-abortion groups that women were being exposed to “disruption and distress”. The Good Counsel Network, which holds the daily vigils, emphasised that its purpose in being there was to support women seeking abortions by offering them practical alternatives in a non-confrontational manner.

The Council is now looking at imposing legal measures that would prevent pro-abortion groups from appearing anywhere near the abortion facility.

Rather than engaging in a constructive conversation about how concerns raised by pro-abortion groups might be addressed, the Council seems to have favoured one side and sought to censor any opposition. It remains to be seen what specific action Ealing Borough Council will take, and whether there will be any recognition of the fundamental importance of freedom of expression.

Welcoming the fact that there can be a healthy diversity of opinions on particular issues, and allowing for them to be freely expressed, is vital to cultivating a society that is open-minded, inclusive and enfranchising. On the other hand, ostracizing or censoring people who hold different views is an oppressive and totalitarian way to ‘win’ arguments in the public square.

If we accept that silencing certain views is a legitimate way of resolving a disagreement, those in positions of authority suddenly become the arbiters of what free speech looks like in practice. It results in a select few being able to shut down discussion on any issues they choose on a whim, which undermines the very foundations of our society.

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