THE idea of free speech being curtailed in our universities and society at large is a disquieting thought. The policy of “no platforming” is at the epicentre of an increasingly heated debate on the right to express views deemed uncomfortable or unacceptable. The policy, in effect, means that people or groups on a banned list for holding racist, fascist or other discriminatory views are not allowed to speak on student union premises. Emanating from the campuses of American universities, it has taken root in the UK much to the chagrin of some university authorities and, more recently, the UK Government.

The English higher education minister, Jo Johnson, has suggested that universities could face fines for failing to uphold free speech if their student unions did not give a platform to certain speakers. The Bishop of Paisley, John Keenan, has praised the UK Government’s announcement, saying he was “glad to see that universities will be held to account when they ban groups, like pro-life, from campus, on the pretext of protecting other students’ feelings and wellbeing”.

It is not only pro-life groups, of course, that come under the no platforming policy. Distasteful views on issues from Islam to transgenderism also fall under the policy, with around two-thirds of students in 2016 agreeing with the National Union of Students (NUS) decision to implement the measure.

Since then, across UK universities there have been protests over individuals or groups that, students argue, would threaten a “safe space”; what the NUS calls an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and free from vilification, hatred and radicalisation. This boils down to one side saying no platforming is an attack on people’s right to say what they want, while the counter view attests that it protects minorities from being discriminated against. That our university campuses must be collegiate places where students feel comfortable to learn and grow goes without saying. As institutions they have a duty of care to their students and must not tolerate criminal speech such incitement to hatred and violence.

Surely, however, free speech is the foundation on which everything valuable about a university education is built. Undermining or eroding that foundation is something we do at great risk and with consequences that could be far reaching. Where, too, might such a route lead? Might it not stop at the issue of debate, but instead be in danger of permeating a wider university culture where certain courses come under scrutiny, syllabuses are deemed offensive and staff are vetted? No platforming also speaks volumes about the dangers of university life and education becoming over sanitised with students potentially prone to intellectual cosseting.

Being challenged is an integral part of university life. Nurturing a well-rounded education means ideals and preconceptions being questioned and discussed, with the case for and against being made and interrogated. Not everything students encounter will or should be familiar, comforting or even consistent with their core beliefs.

Casting a spotlight on other beliefs that are distasteful or dangerous is the best antidote to prevent their spread. It is far better to nurture students capable of refuting repugnant ideas than to have them into a world where their moral, ethical and intellectual compass has been shaped by an environment sanitised according to prevailing mores.

The idea that no platforming protects students is short-sighted. The same insidious or malevolent messages it seeks to avoid students being exposed to readily exist off-campus in political campaigns or on social media. Well-aired, freely expressed debate serves as the best bulwark against malign threats and is preferable to any university echo chamber.