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Louise Richardson: Students should be made uncomfortable (©OUI IMAGES/JOHN CAIRNS)

Last November, Professor Colin Riordan found himself in the middle of a free-speech kerfuffle. Cardiff University, of which he is Vice-Chancellor, had invited Germaine Greer to speak. Students protested, pointing to Greer’s history of crass remarks about transgender people. They demanded the event be called off. Unlike many a university leader before him, Riordan took the opportunity to enunciate some principles of what a university stands for. Cardiff, he said, was “committed to freedom of speech and open debate”. The event went ahead.

Riordan recalls: “Although it was personally difficult for me, it wasn’t difficult for me in terms of what I knew my duty and obligation was.” Riordan is no libertarian zealot; he knows that speech can do harm, and having trans friends himself, he worried about what “knock-on effects” Greer’s words might have. “But at the same time, if you’re going to apply those kind of criteria, that you worry what might happen if somebody says something, then you’re going to find yourself very constrained.”

These principles, which until recently seemed too obvious to be worth arguing over, are notoriously out of fashion on university campuses at present. The stories of overzealous student unions banning speakers on abortion, Islam, gender and so on have become monotonous.

Less well reported is the fact that the censors have had some setbacks. Greer gave her Cardiff lecture; at Warwick, the Iranian secularist Maryam Namazie was first banned by the students’ union, then reinstated after an outcry; at Manchester, a debate featuring Julie Bindel was cancelled by the students’ union, but the organisers went ahead anyway. If large-scale campus censorship is new, so too is the response to it — and there are some small encouraging signs.

Riordan’s intervention over Greer mattered partly because university leaders had previously kept quiet about censorship. He believes they should speak out more and give a lead. “It’s important for vice-chancellors of universities to set the tone,” he says. “To say that these are the principles, we must uphold them, this is how we should be upholding them.”

For Riordan, the nature of the institution demands open debate. “Universities are places where the exchange of ideas and freedom of expression are really fundamental to the point of our being,” he says. “If you can’t say things that others dis-agree with, if you can’t debate new ideas — or for that matter debate old ideas — and disagree with one another, then in the end there is no point in having a university.” The “creation of new ideas” depends on it. “It’s an absolutely fundamental principle that within the law, and so long as order can be maintained, you have to have free speech.”

Given how many students disagree, Riordan says, “I don’t think we can be complacent about it and simply assume it’s going to take care of itself.” Still, he is confident that other university leaders would do something similar in his position.

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