Limits on Free Speech

Report finds plenty of restrictions in British higher education.

February 5, 2015

Robin Thicke, Nietzsche and Page 3 do not, at first glance, appear to have a great deal to do with terrorism.

But there is a thread that links all three, suggests a new ranking -- freedom of speech. Thicke’s song "Blurred Lines" (accused by some campaigners of glorifying rape), a society dedicated to the German philosopher and The Sun have all been banned from British universities.

At a time when higher education leaders are battling against the government’s proposed counterterrorism bill, those behind the Free Speech University Rankings, produced by the online magazine Spiked, claim their findings mean that institutions should get their own houses in order before taking the fight to the home secretary. 

The rankings found restrictions on freedom of expression at four out of five British universities. A total of 47 institutions were given a red rating by the rankings, meaning they were deemed to be particularly censorious.

Dennis Hayes, professor of education and head of the Center for Educational Research at the University of Derby, was in the team behind the report. He said that many university policies went far beyond legislative requirements. “If universities believe in academic freedom and free speech, they should be looking at their own practices and those of student unions, as well as what the government imposes,” he added. 

But should we consider the banning of a newspaper or a song to be in the same league as restricting a speaker who condemns people on account of their religion, ethnicity or sexuality?

Another member of the team that compiled the rankings, Joanna Williams, suggested that the arguments fell into the same arena because censorship on campus was part of a general trend that reflected a fear of giving offense.

“The idea of putting things beyond debate, particularly in the name of safety and emotional protection, says that some things are [too] dangerous to be discussed. I think university should be the place where students do confront all different kinds of ideas and engage with these discussions and don’t have discussions closed down,” Williams, senior lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent, said. “The real world doesn’t have a ‘safe-space policy’ -- students are going to be confronted by UKIP [a far-right party] MPs and The Sun newspaper, and the danger of creating university as a safe place is that students don’t learn how to deal with these things.”

But Eve Livingston, vice president for societies and activities at the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, takes a different view. 

“It is precisely because of the importance of freedom of speech that we enact no-platform policies and we reserve the right not to use our resources for material that is potentially harmful to our students,” she said. “When speakers, events or media make students feel unsafe and marginalized, their voices are being silenced.” 

When this happens, she said, “free speech is no longer serving its origins of holding the privileged and powerful to account. We owe it to our students not to allow this co-opting of a very important principle.”

The producers of the rankings question whether students’ unions typically have the democratic mandate to decide on what is palatable for their members. Hayes said that it reflected a “thinly veiled prejudice” that presumes that some groups of students are less able to withstand a challenge than others.

But Williams acknowledged that although the current campus constraints reflected a history of no-platform tactics, they had resulted from the accumulation of “incremental, one-off bans” rather than a conscious decision to restrict free speech. “My hope is that the rankings, in exposing the extent to which this is happening across the country, will really encourage students, lecturers and managers to assess whether this is a good thing in total,” she said.

The online magazine Spiked cites the following as incidents of free speech being curtailed at British universities:

  • No will for Nietzsche. The German philosopher’s work is the pillar of several politics courses, but a society set up in Nietzsche’s honor was banned by the University College London Union. UCLU accused it of promoting fascism and racism and banned it from meeting or advertising on university premises. Spiked warned that “once censorship is justified on campus, it will quickly eat away at intellectual life." Just as Nietzsche urged people to cast aside the standard rules of morality, some scholars may well question whether UCLU’s actions had gone “beyond good and evil.”
  • The Sun setting on campus. More than 30 universities banned the Sun newspaper, which for decades has featured pinup shots of topless women on its inside pages, from campus shops and common rooms as students’ unions showed their support for the No More Page 3 campaign. Students at the University of Leeds backed the ban in 2013, after a motion described Page 3 as “deeply degrading, dehumanizing and damaging to women.” Students’ unions at Kingston University, the University of East Anglia and the University of Essex also banned the tabloid. Spiked denounced the ban as an example of how “modern campus censorship is more about appearing to tackle a problem, rather than actually doing anything about it.” Tom Slater, the assistant editor of Spiked, added: “Censoring it was an exercise in moral grandstanding more than anything else.”
  • Abortion debate: for women only? A debate organized by an anti-abortion group at the University of Oxford was canceled after students threatened to disrupt it. Tim Stanley, a journalist and historian, got into hot water when he tried to take part in a debate titled “This House believes that abortion culture harms us all” with Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked. On its Facebook page, the Women’s Campaign at Oxford said that it was “absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies.” However, writing in The Daily Telegraph, Stanley said: “I would’ve thought that the one place in Britain where you could agree to disagree amicably would be Oxford University. But I was wrong.”
  • Nothing funny about religion. Students at the London School of Economics and Political Science were forced to cover up T‑shirts featuring images from the satirical comic strip "Jesus and Mo" at the institution’s freshers’ fair. The two members of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society were told that they would be removed from the event if they refused to hide the tops. However, LSE later backtracked and apologized to the students. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, congratulated the students for their “fearless defense of freedom of expression.” In a similar incident at the University of Reading, the atheist society was thrown out of the freshers’ fair for naming a pineapple Mohammed to “encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion and liberty."
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