You could be forgiven for thinking that setting up a college society is a relatively inconspicuous endeavour that rarely draws attention from the student body. Usually, it is those students who are passionate and interested in the new venture that will notice its birth. Once set up, college societies generally become places of activity and discussion. Places of activism, fun, and meeting centres for like minded individuals. This however, was not the case with the Free Speech Society of University College Cork.

What began as two individuals, both similarly angered and disappointed with the lack of diverse discussion on our university campus, became many students standing ready to shout their opinions from the platform we wanted to provide them with. We were optimistic, to put it mildly and we felt as though we were on the cusp of creating a vibrant student movement.

Alas, we foolishly assumed that the societies executive (the governing body which approves the creation of new societies) that uses the slogan, “independent thinking, shared ambition,” among others, would be happy to approve our new ambitious project. We were mistaken.

Despite submitting a comprehensive application and easily acquiring the signatures of two-hundred students, we were not approved. Of course, the reasons given were questionable at best. For example, the societies president told us that they do not approve single-issue societies, which we found interesting because UCC has a Harry Potter society.

I digress.

Irish college campuses are now breeding grounds for progressive activism. Places where anyone right of centre will most certainly not find a home. We have come to realise that dissenting opinions are no longer tolerated on campuses and wider societal discourse.

The re-branding of public debate as harassment has marked the beginning of the decline of free and open discussion. Professors openly praise Marx, while demonising conservatives and their new favourite enemy, populists.

Everyone who can be slotted into these categories, among others, is now a backward, intolerant, bigoted Nazi, to name but a few of their attractive buzzwords. The refusal of guest speakers who are deemed to be too controversial or who hold ‘offensive views’ is now common across Irish universities.

University should be a place where you are challenged at every turn. Where you learn to engage in a constructive, mutually beneficial exchange of ideas with those you disagree with and come away having learned something. Robust debate, challenging ideas, dissenting opinion and free speech.

These are the central tenets of the college experience. Student activists however, appear to lobby for diversity in everything, apart from opinion. Student Unions and societies executives push this platform through their disproportionate support for certain societies and the implementation of policies focused on equality, diversity and inclusivity. Great buzz words. Not so great results. 

What are we left with? Campuses starved of free thought and expression, dominated by a dogmatic political correctness with micro-aggressions, triggerings and safe spaces, all commonplace. Making the university somewhere you can be sure not to be offended or challenged. 

This is not what university should be about.

At every juncture, we were met with suspicious, raised eyebrows. Free speech? For who? Nazi’s? This was the general response of some individuals who view free speech as a threat. But civil discourse is the ability to engage in conversation to enhance the understanding of topics and issues that require discussion and debate. 

Free speech is integral to civil discourse because without the freedom to express all opinions, nothing will get resolved in a meaningful way. It doesn’t matter if you’re left-wing, right-wing or shooting straight down the centre, your ability to approach conversation not with the intent to reply but rather to enhance your own understanding, is vital.

We need to restore civil discourse to our campuses and wider society when discussing complex issues. Allowing one, overpowering set of ideas to prevail is not useful. All ideas need to be challenged.

And so, Free Speech Ireland was born.

To give a voice to all who wish to engage in meaningful, diverse discussion. Free speech is the central pillar of democracy. This is a movement, driven by students, for all.

You are not alone in the culture wars. You are not alone in this great war of ideas. There is a real opportunity for those who believe in personal freedoms and hold ideas that stray outside the socially acceptable, to make their mark on society. To have their voices heard.

We have been met with resistance that has truly shocked us. Free speech should be embraced by those who value the free and open society our forebears fought so bravely to achieve. Free Speech Ireland will bring the art of discussion, debate and ideas back into the mainstream of Irish campuses, and society.

We are not a suspicious project as some would have you believe but rather an ambitious idea, determined to succeed because the insidious nature of the suppression of dissenting opinions will one day come for you too.

Those who oppose free speech will ultimately lose, for they are ones who would suppress the freedoms we all enjoy, and those freedoms will not be taken from us.

Stand up for your rights. Speak your mind. Never stay silent.

Bryan O’ Shea,

Co-founder of Free Speech Ireland.