Photo Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

EDITOR’S NOTE: Free speech is constantly under attack on college campuses across America, but this trend of censoring ideas is not unique to the United States. Freedom-minded students in other countries are also facing obstacles when they attempt to engage in the free and open exchange of ideas that should be the trademark of higher education. YAF is excited to share the story of two students in Ireland who are boldly working to champion the value of free expression in their country.

Free Speech Ireland: A Suspicious Project?

By Bryan O’ Shea and Conor O’ Carroll, co-founders of Free Speech Ireland

America is not alone in the culture wars. You are not alone in this great war of ideas. Ireland and many other countries can attest to that.

You could be forgiven for thinking that setting up a college society is a relatively inconspicuous endeavour that rarely draws attention from the student body. Usually, it is those students who are passionate and interested in the new venture that will notice its birth. Once set up, college societies generally become places of activity and discussion. Places of activism, fun, and meeting centres for like-minded individuals.

This was not the case with the Free Speech Society of University College Cork, Ireland.

What began as two individuals angered and disappointed with the lack of—and actively suppressed—diverse discussion on our university campus became a group of four, with many students standing ready to shout their opinions from the platform we wanted to provide them with. We were optimistic, to put it mildly, and we felt as though we were on the cusp of creating a vibrant student movement.

Alas, we were ignorant.

We foolishly assumed that a societies executive (the governing body who approves the creation of new college societies) within a university that uses the slogan, “independent thinking, shared ambition,” among others, would be happy to approve our new ambitious project. We were mistaken.

Despite submitting a comprehensive application and easily acquiring the signatures of two-hundred students, we were not approved. Of course, the reasons given were questionable at best. For example, the societies president told us that they do not approve single-issue societies, which we found interesting because UCC has a Harry Potter society.

We digress.

Irish college campuses are now breeding grounds of progressive activism, places where anyone right of centre will most certainly not find a home. We have come to realise that dissenting opinions are no longer tolerated on campuses or within wider societal discourse. The re-branding of public debate as harassment has marked the beginning of the decline of free and open discussion. Professors openly praise Marx, while demonising conservatives and their new favourite enemy, populists.

Everyone who can be slotted into the category of conservative or populist, among others, is now a backward, intolerant, bigoted Nazi to name but a few of their attractive buzzwords. The refusal of guest speakers who are deemed to be too controversial or who hold “offensive views” is now common across Irish universities.

It’s bad. Very bad.

University should be a place where you are challenged at every turn. Where you learn to engage in a constructive, mutually beneficial exchange of ideas with those you disagree with and come away having learned something.

Robust debate, challenging ideas, dissenting opinion and free speech: These should be the central tenets of the college experience.

Student activists however, appear to lobby for diversity in everything, apart from opinion. Student Unions and societies executives push this platform through their disproportionate support for certain societies and the implementation of policies focused on equality, diversity and inclusivity.

Great buzz words. Not so great results.

What are we left with? Campuses starved of free thought and expression and dominated by a dogmatic political correctness with ‘micro-aggressions’, ‘triggering’ and ‘safe spaces’ all commonplace and where you can be sure not to be offended or challenged.

This is not what university should be about.

At every juncture, we were met with suspicious, raised eye-brows. Free speech? For who? Nazis? This was the general response of some individuals who view free speech as a threat. But civil discourse is the ability to engage in conversation to enhance understanding of topics and issues that require discussion and debate.

Free speech is integral to civil discourse because without the freedom to express all opinions, nothing will get resolved in a truly meaningful way.

It doesn’t matter if you’re left-wing, right-wing or shooting straight down the centre, your ability to approach conversation not only with the intent to reply but also to enhance your own understanding, is vital.

We need to restore civil discourse—the free and open exchange of ideas—to our campuses and wider society when discussing complex issues. Allowing one, overpowering set of ideas to prevail is not useful. All ideas need to be challenged.

And so, Free Speech Ireland was born to give a voice to all who wish to engage in meaningful, diverse discussion. Free speech is a pillar of democracy. This is a movement, driven by students, for all.

We have been met with resistance that has truly shocked us. Free speech should be embraced by those who value the free and open society our forebears fought so bravely to achieve. Free Speech Ireland will bring the art of discussion, debate, and ideas back into the mainstream of Irish campuses and society. We are not a suspicious project as some would have you believe but rather an ambitious idea, determined to succeed because the insidious nature of the suppression of dissenting opinions will one day come for you too.

Those who oppose us will ultimately lose, for they are ones who would suppress the freedoms we all enjoy, and those freedoms will not be taken from us.

Speak your mind. Never stay silent.