Launched by a group of university students and recent graduates, the Free Speech Champions initiative “aims to inspire the next generation about the importance of free speech,” the group’s founding director, Inaya Folarin Iman wrote on Twitter.
I’m excited to announce the launch of Free Speech Champions @speechchampions, an initiative which aims to inspire the next generation about the importance of free speech, set up by students and recent graduates and supported by @theboi_uk and @speechunion https://t.co/O43FH7L2KG— Inaya Folarin Iman (@InayaFolarin) January 31, 2021
“Without being exposed to disagreement, how would we be able to work out if we’re right or wrong?” Iman asked in one of four video messages from group members on the movement’s new website.
Highlighting the function of free speech in a democracy, group member Oliver Cray said, “Freedom of expression and democracy are inseparable.”
“I think in a system where one man gets one vote, we know that each man is endowed with reason, the capacity to think, and the capacity to make decisions for themselves,” Cray said.
To preserve freedom of expression for the future, we may need to tolerate “views that we find abhorrent or views that are illiberal.”
The Free Speech Champions initiative follows freedom of expression increasingly coming under the spotlight in recent months.
In January, Conservative MP David Davis, a former Secretary of State, told British lawmakers that free speech is under severe threat from cancel culture, warning of “a corrosive trend in our universities that aims to prevent anybody hearing ideas that groups disagree with or would be offended by.”
In November 2020, teacher Will Knowland was dismissed from the prestigious Eton College over a lecture on his private YouTube channel questioning “current radical feminist orthodoxy,” although the college denied the dismissal was related to freedom of speech.
Also, in July last year, historian David Starkey lost a Cambridge University honorary fellowship after he made a controversial comment on a podcast.
‘Antithetical to a Genuine Pursuit of Truth’
Free Speech Champions member and Master’s year architecture student Richard Stalker explained why free speech is important to him as a younger person and warned of the consequences of not considering differing opinions.
“As someone who has fluctuated on political, social, and moral issues on more than one occasion in my admittedly short life thus far, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that a dogmatic attitude to some of the most important questions in life is antithetical to a genuine pursuit of truth,” he said in a video on the group’s website.
“When enough people take on this attitude, one of the most crucial pillars of a free society deteriorates.”
Group member Rob Downie in another video highlighted the dangers of repressing free speech even for those who want to quash it.
“If you’re someone who’s trying to shut down debate, it’s really not in your interest in the sense that if you think there are ideas which are dangerous, you’ll pretty much push them underground where they have room to ferment,” he said.
“And if they are actually dangerous, then that could have a worse effect than having them out in the open and discussed in a civilized, balanced way.”
The new initiative is supported by the Free Speech Union, which wrote on Twitter that the initiative “will go to where young people most need the space to think and speak freely—schools, universities and online communities.”
.@speechchampions will go to where young people most need the space to think and speak freely—schools, universities and online communities—and inspire support for and encourage young people to stand up for freedom of speech 🙌https://t.co/JNASKAjhFz— The Free Speech Union (@SpeechUnion) February 1, 2021
It is also supported by the Battle of Ideas forum, which hosts an annual festival promoting debate unrestrained by “’correct ways’ of thinking.”
Free Speech Champions offers advice on how to tackle free speech issues, host events, and set up free speech societies on campus.
It will hold an online launch event on Feb. 18.
Speakers include Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; University of Cambridge philosopher and Free Speech Union adviser Arif Ahmed; and Cambridge Radical Feminist Network member Sophie Watson.