Above: the Catholic Church's Index of Banned Books, 1640
In the past few years the press has had a number of semi-sensationalist stories about student unions banning or wanting to ban something deemed offensive. And in some cases the issue has been real.
Now an essay by the late Marxist academic Norman Geras on the ethics of revolution has been flagged up by the University of Reading as potentially subversive, so that students reading it must sign a form and pledge not to leave the text around where others might scan it.
The university did that under the government’s Prevent agenda, supposed to help stop young people becoming "terrorists". The case shows that governments and university managements pose a huge threat to freedom of speech on campus. Like all attacks on free speech, they will eventually become attacks on the left.
Prevent has rightly been opposed by the National Union of Students and many others. But the explicit issue of free speech has often failed to gain much active support from the campus left. Hopefully this case will remind us that it’s increasingly unaccountable bureaucrats who are getting to decide what material is judged acceptable and what is deemed potentially “dangerous” or “extreme”.
If Norman Geras, the cricket-loving Eustonite academic, is too suspicious for university managements or Prevent agents, wait till they hear what Socrates thought of democracy, or what Malcolm X thought about Western governments, or indeed what the Pope thinks about abortion.
Labelling something as potentially “extremist” has always been a way to narrow the "Overton window" of acceptable discussion and prevent rowdy political debate and activity.
The views of groups like Al Qaeda and Daesh are appalling. But not because they are “extreme” - because they are hideously reactionary and violent. Some of their views, like for example their aversions to homosexuality or equality for women, are fairly standard features of many societies around the globe, and in those places it may be easier to tag someone opposed to these views as "extremist".
Those who don’t see free speech as an issue worth actively championing as a left-wing cause will end up seeing some of the ominous consequences of that for the left, just as students at the University of Reading have.