Is the worm finally turning in the great free speech conflict between the belligerent minority who seek to shut out views of which they do not approve and the great majority who have been cowed into silence for far too long?
The appearance of Prof Kathleen Stock at the Oxford Union marked an important milestone in the progress back to sanity in this regard.
The feminist academic had been threatened with a ban by students because of her view that biological sex matters.
In the eyes of some campaigners, this opinion, which until recently would not have been considered remotely contentious, is so outlandish as to merit ostracism. To question gender ideology is the new heresy, while online abuse and so-called “cancellations” serve as modern equivalents of the pillory or the stake.
Prof Stock’s stand has galvanised parts of the academic and political worlds into a semblance of enlightened thought by coming to the defence of her right to speak.
More than 40 academics wrote to The Telegraph supporting her appearance, while the Oxford University authorities intervened to protect free speech when the student union threatened to ban the debating society from its freshers’ fair.
The Prime Minister also stepped in this week, insisting that Prof Stock had a right to be heard while urging students to engage with her views even if they disagree with them.
Rishi Sunak told this newspaper that the vocal few must not be allowed to shut down debate and that universities must support – not stifle – argument and discussion.
It says something about where we are now that the point even has to be made, though it is by no means a new phenomenon for students to “no platform” speakers whose views they don’t like.
In the febrile environment of the 1970s, many Conservative ministers were howled down on university campuses or prevented from speaking altogether.
What is new is the complicity of university authorities and academics in repressing debate either deliberately or by declining to stand up for freedom of expression. This extends to the corporate world, where company bosses are too ready to castigate or even dismiss employees deemed to have offended activists claiming to hold unassailable opinions.
Even some in the media, which should encourage free speech, are ready to see it constrained. Where climate change or “net zero” are concerned, the BBC will rarely, if ever, give a platform to anyone who challenges the accepted nostrums. It has apparently decreed that they are wrong and therefore must not be heard.
Free speech has never been an absolute right; words that seek to foment hatred and violence have often been circumscribed, though this should not be used as an excuse for refusing to tackle difficult subjects.
One of the more perverse examples of shutting down a subject concerns the origins of the Covid pandemic. Given its impact on lives and the world’s economic well-being, there can hardly be a bigger and more important question than where the virus came from and how it spread.
There have been extraordinary efforts in the West to exculpate China from this disaster. For some time, even to suggest that the virus might have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan (and no one was saying it was deliberate) was to risk denunciation, maybe because at the time it was a view pushed by Donald Trump.
Facebook even censored references to the possibility of a lab leak as fake news.
The BBC previously referred to it as “a controversial theory” even though many people might have considered it perfectly plausible. Yesterday, however, BBC News quoted a former top Chinese scientist, Prof George Gao, as saying that “the possibility the virus leaked from a laboratory should not be ruled out”.
Indeed not; and yet for months it was dismissed in some quarters as the deranged ravings of conspiracy theorists and hardly discussed. Prof Gao said: “You can always suspect anything. That’s science. Don’t rule out anything.”
The authoritarian regime in Beijing might beg to differ; but open debate should be the indispensable condition of a free society.