Image Credit: York Free Speech Society
Euan Clayton, President of Free Speech Society, might not be the usual idea of a free speech advocate. But that’s exactly the point of his new society, he tells Nouse.
“We want to break the perception that to be interested in free speech is just to be controversial or hateful, or the idea that a lot of people have – particularly university students – that free speech is a right-wing concept."
“It’s always been a progressive value, and every progressive social justice movement has valued it until very recently.”
Free Speech Society has been trying to change minds through relaxed pub meet-ups. “Reputation matters,” he says. “There was an era that was very Katie Hopkins-Milo Yiannopoulous- Ben Shapiro, treating free speech as a provocateur-type topic which has done a lot of damage to the reputation of free speech debates."
“This society is part of a new generation of free speech societies that see free speech as a value and not as an absolute, and not deliberately provocative,” he adds.
But Euan recognises that his is one of just ten university free speech societies. Is there really a need for one at the University of York?
‘We’re quite lucky here at York.” He praises YUSU’s free speech regulaltions – “on paper, it’s all good.” But he insists that “there is an issue with self- censorship on campus. People are just not comfortable with disagreement."
“But there is a self-censorship issue at every university. It’s a generational issue and it’s an academic issue.” Can Free Speech Society really change that?
“Everyone really benefits from the sessions, coming out having thought about something and having been introduced to ideas they didn’t know about before. Above all, it will help you to become more comfortable disagreeing with other people.”
The last session’s debate was on the limits of free speech, he says. “Free speech as an absolute has never existed. There have always been regulations on freedom of speech.”
The Government is currently pushing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill through the dusty lobbies of Parliament. If it becomes law, it will impose a new legal duty on universities and student unions to uphold freedom of speech. This comes amidst a series of academics and politicians, notably former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, being ‘no-platformed’ shortly before giving talks at universities. So Euan must be ecstatic, right?
“I’m glad that the Government is taking notice, especially in relation to student unions,” he says rather unenthusiastically. “However, legislation probably isn’t the answer. This is a cultural issue.”
What about those who say that there isn’t a free speech problem at universities? “You have to be very lucky to hold so many orthodox opinions," he quips with a smirk.
"If you don’t see a free speech problem because all of your views are represented in the media, that’s fine. But seeing free speech as an important value, especially if you see yourself as a progressive, is always going to be important."
“There’s always going to be challenges and things you want to change. To do that, you need reasoned, good faith debate.”
And on cancel culture, Euan is similarly firm. “If you deny the existence of cancel culture, you’re not coming into the debate in good faith in the first place. People have lost their jobs for their opinions. This culture of trying to ruin people’s livelihoods over things they say is a thing that exists. You can say you agree with cancel culture, but to say it doesn’t exist is a falsehood.”
How does Free Speech Society tread that difficult line? “Difficult topics like these are what universities were set up to tackle. That’s why we’re here, and that’s what Free Speech Society is all about. Universities are not doing their job if it’s not training us to deal with situations like this.”
Euan acknowledges that this is a sensitive topic, but says: “It’s something you have to tackle in real life – not everything is sanitised.”
Given the minefield of controversy that Free Speech Society is operating in, have they received any hate so far? “A little bit of trolling on Facebook,” he grins. “But it’s really no big deal.”
“People give too much weight to trolls. At the end of the day, they’re just trolls sitting behind their computer screens. They soon move on to the next thing.”
If freedom of speech really is under threat, what can each of us do to protect it? “Create a ripple effect by disagreeing with something in everyday conversations. Try to engage in good faith disagreement."
“You see that a lot of people feel relieved when someone disagrees with something that is taught as the absolute truth, when it may not be.”
“Above all else, become more comfortable disagreeing with other people.”
Patrick O’Donnell, the YUSU President, told Nouse: “We enjoy a diverse range of political, media and campaigning groups on-campus at York, many of which I had the pleasure of speaking with earlier this term at the Freshers’s Fair."
"Students at York have long been committed to the responsible practice of free speech, evidenced by the wide range of speakers we host on cam - pus and previous proposals for a no platform policy being rejected by the student body."
"Regrettably, we see a national picture of silly sensationalist tabloid headlines, pitting speakers and agendas against each other.”