There is a new free speech controversy on a university campus this week. Robbie Travers, a 21-year-old third-year law student at the University of Edinburgh, is under investigation for a “hate crime” after mocking ISIS fighters targeted in a massive air strike by the United States. Esme Allman, a second-year history student, accused Travers of “blatant Islamophobia” and creating an unsafe environment for students through his mocking of the terrorists being helped to paradise.
Travers commented on Facebook on the US Air Force dropping a MOAB (“mother of all bombs”) on a network of ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan in April. He wrote “Excellent news that the US administration and Trump ordered an accurate strike on an ISIS network of tunnels in Afghanistan. I’m glad we could bring these barbarians a step closer to collecting their 72 virgins.”
Allman accused Travers of statements putting “minority students at risk and in a state of panic and fear.” However, this was a posting on Facebook, did not make any express threats, and the police have not commenced any hate speech investigation (despite the broad criminalization of speech in England).
A university spokesman is quoted as confirming the investigation and saying that “We are committed to providing an environment in which all members of the university community treat each other with dignity and respect and our code of student conduct sets out clear expectations of behaviour.”
Yet, what about the concern for free speech? Investigating students for statements made on social media is a heavy handed measure that will obviously chill speech for many. I understand if Muslim students object to any over-simplification or stereotyping of their religion. However, the solution is not an investigation to try to bar such speech but a robust response in the same public forum.
Allman identifies herself as a “womanist from inner-city London” who seeks “inclusivity as well as building and preserving safe spaces for us . . . [and working] alongside the other liberation groups to ensure EUSA are fully representative of our views.” Yet, there is also a legitimate concern of the space for free speech on campuses. Why is it not enough to counter speech with speech? Even if the law student held anti-Islamic views, why shouldn’t he be allowed to voice those views and values in the public forum?
What do you think?