Over 60 young people and students from across the UK gathered in London for the annual Living Freedom conference
Today, when the words “students” and “free speech” are brought together in a sentence, it is usually in the context of the now all-too-common occurrence of the former’s campaign against the latter.
Just last month, a survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) found that current students were more likely to prioritize safety over free speech.
The survey found that students are increasingly supportive of moves to curb free speech on campus and dilute academic rigor and debate by removing documents and memorials they find offensive.
However, this weekend more than 60 young people and students from across the UK gathered in London for the annual Living Freedom Conference, a residential summer school aimed at promoting freedom of expression, the free exchange of ideas and passionate intellectual debate.
There was also a notable number of international participants, including from Ukraine, Belarus and China.
The conference was first created in 2017 by the charity Battle of Ideas and since 2021 has been supported by Free Speech Champions, a campaign group of young people dedicated to creating space to think freely and all question.
The first speaker at the conference was Emeritus Professor of Sociology and University of Kent, Frank Furedi, who gave a 30-minute lecture on ‘revenge of history’ where he criticized the idea that ‘the ‘story had ended’ at the end of the cold. The war and this liberal democracy had inevitably triumphed.
Furedi denigrated the uncritical acceptance of creating a “new normal” where we abandon all the norms, morals and foundations that have forged our liberal democratic civilization in favor of the superficial and fashionable.
He called on attendees to rediscover and advance Enlightenment ideals and to “rearm morally.”
Participants then posed a series of challenging and far-reaching questions to Professor Furedi.
A participant asked if there was anything new in older generations lamenting the idealistic zeal of the young, to which Furedi suggested that what is new today is that adults do not challenge young people more and have given up responsibility for them.
Another participant asked how we find a balance between retaining what is good in the old while preventing a rigidity that resists new ideas and positive change.
The atmosphere was both transgressive and liberating, as if what was being exploited was a rare but timeless experience of being in a space truly open to ideas, where anything could happen.
Alastair Donald, the organizer of Living Freedom told me that Living Freedom was created because “whether [it is] challenge new orthodoxies, understand freedom of conscience, fight against sexual freedom or advocate for artistic freedom, we need new ideas and a new generation to take up the cause”.
He added: “Our aim is to provide a meeting place where young people can address the many complex issues of freedom, where they can speak freely and critically, but also meet and socialize with their peers.
Paul Sapper, a GB News producer who attended the conference, told me that “the school is an open-minded environment…The excellent speakers and discussions that followed each conference provided an opportunity to reflect and clarify the assumptions of my worldview”.
I spoke to another participant, Maria Albano, a young writer and literary critic and she said, “This is my second time going to Living Freedom, it’s an incredible opportunity to meet people from different walks of life. and different worldviews.
“The guests and the discussions are curious and fearless. They come from a wide range of viewpoints but are a model of intelligent discussion where people can strongly disagree but still treat each other with respect.”
Other talks and talks at the conferences include thorny moral and cultural topics, for example conversion therapy, sexual freedom, freedom of expression in literature, and online censorship. Guest speakers included feminist Julie Bindel, columnist Zoe Strimpel and Cambridge University philosopher Dr Arif Ahmed, as well as many other eminent personalities.
Students and young people who want to get involved can visit the Free Speech Champions and Battle of Ideas association website.