Students challenge boundaries of free speech in ‘Unsafe Space’ experiment

The unsafe space

A group of students have challenged the boundaries of free speech in an experiment allowing young people to air honest views on a series of controversial issues.

With freedom of speech in universities being called into question following a series of high-profile no platform incidents, an experiment has been held at Birmingham City University called ‘The Unsafe Space’.

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Birmingham City University

The concept was the brainchild of third-year Design for Performance student Eloise Gale, who was inspired by stories of universities limiting free speech and wanted to test how students reacted to being given the freedom to openly discuss their views on contentious topics.

Among the challenging themes tackled in the Unsafe Space were the value for money of university tuition fees, whether Islamic veils should be banned on campuses, sexual consent and cultural appropriation.

The 10 statements included in the project were:

  1.  As a student, I believe I get £27,000 worth of education throughout my degree.

  2. The song ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke should be banned from university campuses across the UK.

  3. Students should be strongly advised to take sexual consent classes at university.

  4. Universities should get rid of male/female toilets and make them all unisex instead.

  5. Sombreros should be banned from being worn as fancy dress in universities, it is cultural appropriation.

  6. Teachers should be suspended for using the incorrect pronouns of a student.

  7. UK universities should follow France’s previous rule to ban Islamic headscarves on campus.

  8. Pole dancing societies should not be banned from universities.

  9. Guest speakers should not be able to speak at universities if some students find their opinions offensive.

  10. As a student, sometimes I feel I cannot express my honest opinion in a discussion with my peers/in class, for fear of being judged.

Eloise created three different areas for the debate to take place; a ‘Safe Space’ where the audience didn’t have to get involved, an ‘Agree or Disagree’ area where people could show their opinion but were not able to speak, and an ‘Unsafe Space’ where there we no limitations on speech.

She created 10 statements as a starting point for debate which reflected a range of subjects which also included cultural appropriation and banned societies to encourage students to push the boundaries of free speech.

There were 27 students involved in the project which took place over the course of an hour.

The debate was filmed and was unveiled to the public at the University’s Inspired Festival, which showcases the final-year projects of students from its Arts, Design and Media Faculty.

Creator Eloise Gale said: “‘The Unsafe Space’ is a participatory installation which provided an opportunity for students to push the boundaries of free speech and voice their views.

“One of the aims of this installation was to create more than just a debate, but rather a valuable and thought-provoking experience.

“The audience involved were able to discuss their opinions in a mature way during the installation and leave with a better understanding and appreciation of others opinions.

The installation ended with an actor shutting down the activity by telling students it went against University policy, to give participants the experience of using their free speech, then having it taken away from them.

Academics from the University’s Design for Performance course will be on hand to talk to the public at the University’s Open Day on Saturday 30 June.

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