Safe or Sanitised: Free Speech and the right to be offensive

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This UK Satellite event is part of the festival Battle of Ideas 2017 organised by the Institute of Ideas

In 2017, freedom of speech is as vital and divisive a topic as it has ever been. The extent to which  we should be free to discuss, promote and hear controversial or unsavoury ideas is argued over in the mainstream media and social media alike. In Ireland, several controversial figures such as Kevin Myers and George Hook have been ousted from their jobs due to free speech controversies.

In universities, this contestation is especially vibrant, and debates about what speakers and views should be allowed spill over into wider society. Recent years have witnessed the rise in the demand for safe spaces, where students can discuss free from exposure to unsavoury ideas. Trigger warnings , which flag potentially unsettling content in the curriculum, are being embraced by increasing numbers of lecturers. And no-platforming, long a strategy designed to disinvite and bar speakers who hold particular views, has enjoyed something of a renaissance: in 2017 Ireland’s Israeli ambassador Ze’ev Boker’s speaking engagement at Trinity College Dublin was the latest to be cancelled amid protests by students, and controversial speakers rarely appear at Irish universities without strong objection. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and spiked magazine produce annual reports on the state of free speech in the US and the UK respectively, and their findings highlight curtailments of expression at almost every level of student life. No such survey has been carried out in Ireland, but safe spaces, no-platforming and trigger warnings are common to Irish, US and UK universities, and beyond. But does this necessarily tell a problematic story? In this Dublin Salon debate, we hope to examine the question of free speech in universities and wider society from a variety of perspectives.

Do speakers’ bans, trigger warnings and safe spaces enhance or degrade the intellectual life experienced by Irish students? Defenders of safe spaces argue that they offer vulnerable students an opportunity to develop their ideas at their own space but critics say that there is there a risk of narrowed perspectives if difficult topics are simply shunned.  And what of society more broadly?  If the media remove all views that are dubbed offensive, is there a danger of public debate itself becoming a sanitized echo-chamber, a threat to press freedom? Or should we become aware of how disagreeable and offensive ideas – which are now seen by some as actively harmful to personhood and especially to minority groups – are outdated and instead all start watching our language?

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7 p.m. Wednesday November 8, 2017


CCT College Dublin, 30-34 Westmoreland St., Dublin 2


Ian O’Doherty

O’Doherty is a columnist with both the Irish Independent and the Irish Daily Star. He is a frequent contributor on Newstalk and RTE and no, he still hasn’t written that book people keep asking him about


Catherine Sanz

Originally from Miami, Catherine has has worked for The Sunday Times and The Times since July 2016 following completion of an MA in journalism. She is a general news reporter, with an interest in debunking pseudo-science, quackery, and misinformation.

One of her most notable projects involved repeatedly going undercover into a crisis pregnancy agency where she was given false information about the side effects of procuring an abortion, including that it made women child abusers and caused breast cancer.

She has also done investigative pieces into Ireland’s direct provision system and anti-vaccine movement, as well on lighter topics like the plastic bag levy, “slow tourism,” and the alcohol bill. She was crowned Little Miss Mary from Dungloe 1999, but nobody takes her title seriously.


emmaElla Whelan

Ella is the assistant editor at spiked. She writes on a variety of topics and is a regular TV and radio commentator, notably on feminism and free speech.

Ella was a leading campaigner for spiked’s Invoke Article 50 NOW! campaign. She is also the convenor of spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings and Down With Campus Censorship campaign, fighting for free speech at universities.

Her first book, What Women Want: Fun, Freedom And An End To Feminism, will be published by Connor Court in September.


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