A Room of One's Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.
You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.
I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive.


Let me start from where I’m coming from, what I think about some controversies relating to free speech.
First of all, I am against No Platform policies, which I think are counter productive and against the idea of freedom of expression.
I also believe that hate speech should not be proscribed by any law and should be permitted up to the point at which violence is incited. Holocaust denial—which I abhor—should not be a crime, as it is in some European countries. And I also think there should be a liberally interpreted ‘public interest’ defence to all the laws that govern any kind of speech and expression—so whether that is libel, privacy, copyright, official secrets, contempt of court. Even the revenge porn laws might need a public interest clause, now I think of it.
So I support free speech and I think it is the primus inter pares—is that the correct way to pronounce the Latin?—the ‘first among equals’ of our civil and human rights.
I support free speech… and that’s the end of the sentence.
Not “I support free speech but…”
Just, “I support free speech.”
So I am emphatically not going to try to mount an argument today that gives any reasons or circumstances in which it is legitimate for speech to be limited, in the context that we are talking about today. Because I don’t think there are any.
Instead, I want to use this debate to float the idea that safe spaces—done properly—can enhance freedom of expression, which is what English PEN concerns itself with.
And I also want to suggest that a safe space policy, much like the one currently instituted by Goldsmiths SU, can protect and guarantee a platform for controversial speakers, whether they are people who I do agree with—like the Atheist and Humanist Society—or people who I don’t agree with, like Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, and the alt.right.
English PEN is a literary charity and we look for literary examples to make our point. In this case, a good literary text I began with is ‘A Room Of One’s Own’. That’s the lecture series by Virginia Woolf, which I’ve been re-reading this week. Now Woolf speaks specifically about what it takes to be a writer, and she has a very specific menu – She wants £500 a year, which would be about a national average salary in today’s money, if you adjust for inflation. And she also wants a space, the titular Room, for which she has the key, in order to do her writing, to shut out the world, the influence and the demands of people and the patriarchy around her.
Now, her specific ask does have its own problems. Most authors would want to be handed a yearly stipend equals to the average wage, and few of them actually get it! And of course, I think Woolf might have had servants, she came from a particular class, and what she asked for was certainly out of reach for most people, let alone most women, let alone working class women, and women of colour in her era.
But the principle of what she asked for is still sound, I think. She speaks a lot in the essay about the control of space, the control of buildings, by men. And how that hampers intellectual development. And the central idea, that one needs control over one’s environment, and some privacy in order to write, is surely right I think.
English PEN is also a human rights charity. We defend free speech, but there are other rights that we need in order to allow a flourishing democracy, and flourishing individuals within that democracy.
Often, free speech is seen as the enabling right, because it allows us to demand all the other rights, and speak out about rights violations. And in our international work, we see daily that’s its the rights defenders and the journalists who the authoritarians come after first.
And often, free speech is seen as antagonistic to other rights. Free speech versus freedom of belief, for example, with the blasphemy debate. The campus free speech debates, about no platform, trigger warnings, safe spaces – they are not about being ‘offended’ but between free speech and safety (which actually is a point lost on many free speech advocates, who are still arguing the decades old debate about being offended).
But there’s another way of looking at it, which is that the other rights can facilitate freedom of expression.
The right to life, the expectation of safety, is the first thing that gives us confidence to speak.
And the right to privacy, to be alone with our thoughts, was essential for Virginia Woolf and essential for all of us—especially academics—to gather our thoughts into some kind of coherence.
And we also need a freedom of association, to gather with like minded people, gather with a particular type of person—doesn’t matter whether that’s particular views, or gender, or race—in order to develop emotionally, intellectually, and politically.  All of those things that are bundled up in the idea of freedom of expression
So, when someone says, as Woolf did, “this is what I need to develop my writing”; or in a modern, more generalised version, “this is what we need to develop our ideas”; that doesn’t look like censorship to me. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a catalyst for freedom of expression.
And when you look at the opposite point of view: To say that all thought and discussion must take place in the open air, perhaps under a barrage of abuse?
To insist that people are not free to choose to spend time away from irritation, distraction, annoyance?
Or to take the desire for a space free of hostility in order to grow, intellectually, socially… and to label that ‘over sensitivity’ or ‘flakyness’… that’s a sleight of hand, and its designed to keep those who ask for ‘the room’ on the other side of the door.
Now it must be said, that the idea that privacy and freedom of association can facilitate freedom of expression… that idea is only part of the concept. Just as economists talk about microeconomics and macroeconomics, so we have to talk not only about freedom of expression for the individual, but freedom of expression for the entire polity.
And just like the difference between micro- and macroeconomics, we might find that a healthy democracy needs a different kind of freedom of expression to what an individual might need. So we need to devise policies for both (And part of those polices are things to ensure that we’re not inside a filter bubble).
So just as the state, or a university (a sort of pseudo-government, governing this particular campus) should provide resources, education, and space for people to properly express themselves… the state, and the university also needs to provide public spaces where all ideas can be expressed, and individuals and groups can exchange ideas between them. I don’t think that’s a circle to be squared, but it is a challenge to Goldsmiths University Student’s Union, both the officers and all the students.

I said that safe spaces can protect controversial opinions. I’ll just quickly elaborate on that.
I didn’t attend Maryam Namaze’s event last year with the atheist society, but I did watch a video of it. And if any event was crying out for adherence to the safe space policy, it was that one. She was heckled, she was harassed, and made to feel distinctly unsafe.
And yet ISOC, in their statement afterwards which has since been taken down, said that entire university should be a ‘safe space’ which was very odd, and it was equally odd that the Feminist Society decided to defend the hecklers and not Maryam Namaze’s right to express herself. Very odd, very strange.
Likewise, if Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, Milo Yiannopolous, David Starkey, Anem Choudhury – if these people were invited to Goldsmith’s College to speak, then the thing that would facilitate their speech, and those facilitate the counter-speech, the rebuttal of what they say, would be a safe space policy that gives primacy to respectfully listening to other people’s views.
I’m over time. I’ve got a lot more to say and I’ll so later on. Thank you very much.

One Reply to “A Room of One's Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

  1. Really enjoyed both listening to and reading this Rob and ( as always !) completely agree. Is there anywhere I can read the speech from whoever was opposing you ?

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