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It Is Not the Job of Student Unions to Police Student Thoughts

05/10/2015 10:29 BST | Updated 01/10/2016 10:12 BST

Yesterday, it was reported that the Oxford University Student Union had made the decision to ban free-speech magazine "No Offence" from being distributed at Freshers' Fair (when the majority of students - both freshers and non-freshers - would be able to acquire a copy) for... its potential to cause offence. Beyond the problems with the instant case, such a decision also represents yet another unjustified attempt by SU officials to control the parameters of "acceptable" debate, something which the magazine was ironically set up to counter.

This morning, OUSU released a statement justifying the ban to themselves, a statement that I find woefully inadequate. In the first instance, having reviewed the magazine as it was submitted to OUSU, I must take an issue with several of the assertions made.

Firstly, the statement describes one of the articles as "glorifying colonialism", when in fact the piece is an article discussing several nuances surrounding the administration of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) under the British, and specifically focussing on several consequences of the subsequent dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, which the author had clearly researched. Although the article takes a very negative view of the circumstances of the end of British Rhodesia, it cannot in my view fairly be called a general glorification of colonialism; it freely admits that colonialism misruled countries into the gutter, and does not purport to set out a general "defence of colonialism", merely to talk about aspects of British rule in Zimbabwe. However, even if the article did wish to defend British colonialism more generally, that would not be a legitimate reason to censor it; surveys have shown that the majority of the British public view our Imperial history positively, and if you believe that the public are wrong to do so, you're not going to win hearts and minds over to the opposite conclusion by simply continuing to assert that you believe they are wrong (or immoral) and to shut down debate.

The second major issue which OUSU appeared to have with the magazine was a satirical piece (which is at the bottom of the magazine, clearly marked in the "entertainment" section), satirising the hypermasculine/MRA attitude, written in a crass, "bro" style and containing assertions that the majority of us would find absurd (notably that there would be an equivalence between slutwalks and "rape swaggers). To be clear, this was not an essay arguing for the latter to be socially acceptable, but clearly mocking the attitudes it expressed, and (like any satire) not to be taken seriously. The satirical Letters to the Editor were also highlighted in a similar manner despite the fact that, yet again, the "letter" containing an anti-Muslim slur was a clear mockery of the modern far-right's fixation on Islam (notably by naming the fictional contributor "A Wyatt Man"). Yet, despite the (in my view) fairly obvious satire involved (even if it's in poor taste), this didn't matter, with the statements taken at face value. This attitude towards satire is sadly increasingly common, with demands to try Charlie Hebdo at the ICC having been made purely on account of cartoons satirising anti-refugee bigotry featuring the body of drowned Aylan Kurdi, for allegedly inciting racial hatred despite being clear attempts to do the opposite.

The article that struck me as most controversial was on the subject of abortion, and did contain - as the statement from OUSU asserts - a graphic description of an abortion. It was, however, exactly that: a description of the actual process of abortion, rather than any sort of hyperbole for the purpose of emotional blackmail. While such a description certainly has the potential to be triggering or extremely upsetting to people that have had abortions - and no warning was provided that this was included in the article in any form - there would have been nothing stopping OUSU from requesting that such a warning be put at the top of the article if their concern really was to avoid needlessly triggering anyone. Indeed, the Editor-in-Chief made it clear that he was willing to consider modifications to address concerns about the articles (and such a modification is surely the sort of thing one would have in mind when offering to do so). Instead, it was OUSU that refused to negotiate, suggesting that it was actually concerned with suppressing any discussion of this and other issues in the first instance.

In the second instance, however, the other justifications used by OUSU are also inadequate. Firstly, there is nothing to suggest that merely allowing a publication to be distributed at Freshers' Fair means that OUSU itself is in any way "associated with" or endorsing the views on display; given the diversity of stalls at the Fair (from Oxford Marxists to Young Independence), to say the opposite would be committing oneself to a quite severe case of cognitive dissonance.

More to the point, however, is that the entire scenario doesn't represent OUSU trying to enforce a imagined right not to be offended but policing views that its own leadership finds offensive. Although the obscure Regulation 13 in theory allows any material likely to cause offence to anyone to be censored, this is clearly not applied consistently when we consider that both Oxford Marxists and the openly Marxist-Leninist rs21 shall be present. I'm sure many people (myself included) find apologism for communism - an ideology which has killed tens of millions of people and oppressed many more - extremely offensive, and yet the display of communist iconography by such stalls would surely be uncensored, despite the fact that those offended by communism (perhaps from their own families' experiences) will have no choice but to look at it whereas those who are presented with a magazine are perfectly free not to take it, nor to read it later, nor to read every article after reviewing the table of contents (or any CNs/TWs).

Yet this is not the first time that OUSU has recently decided that its job is not to represent students but to police their opinions, and to tell them what they are and aren't allowed to read or hear. In March, OUSU infamously passed a motion not only backing the impending siege of the Oxford Union by a protest-cum-violent mob against their decision to host Marine Le Pen, but mandating the President to encourage all students to join said mob on the day, which resulted in verbal attacks on those students who would rather attend her talk than join the abuse, and the putting of everyone lucky enough to get in under Police protection due to repeated attempts to breach the security of the premise. Nor was there any consistency in the activities of OUSU or the protestors here, either, not least because they claimed to be protesting extremism despite flying Communist flags. Despite several protestors claiming they were protesting Marine Le Pen's alleged anti-Semitism (explaining, of course, why Jewish votes for the FN are on the rise), when members of the Nation of Islam spoke in the same term, no such protest-cum-mob was raised despite the quite open anti-Semitism of the group's leaders. Indeed, some of those who had demonstrated against Marine Le Pen were in the audience of the latter, and I suspect this is because they sympathised with some of the Nation's ideas (such as casting "white supremacy" as the root of all evil, including Islamic extremism).

What makes the situation all the more tragic in Oxford is the fact that OUSU proudly declares on its website that it was founded precisely to protect free speech (and, ironically, to defend the right of a magazine to publish what it wanted to), and now its leadership casts itself as the infallible judge of what students should be allowed to read (Regulation 13 giving no right of appeal). Rather than continue to protect the rights of the students whom it is supposed to represent and claims to speak for, it has become - as C.S. Lewis opined - a "tyranny exercised for the good of its victims." And, again as Lewis predicted, its response to criticism has been to double down on its determination to police debate, for its leadership "torment us... with the approval of their own conscience."

When we consider OUSU's history, and its self-declared mission to represent the voices of students - to own the thoughts in our heads; the air in our lungs; and the tongues in our mouths - Conquest's third law springs immediately to mind: The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies; instead of actually representing all students, its leadership target their (illiberal) policies at those with whom they personally disagree, and rather than defend free speech, OUSU and other SUs (including the NUS) are now at the forefront of restricting speech on campus, with NUS no-platform policies continuing to expand.

The banning of No Offence at Freshers' Fair (and let's not pretend that this doesn't put it at considerable disadvantage in terms of distributing it and exposing those who wish to read it to the ideas therein) ironically is the perfect showcase for the need for its existence. By now, however, these attacks on free speech have ceased to be funny, or something to simply laugh off. Only by taking our these issues as seriously as they deserve, and continuing to speak out against the censorship, restriction and banning of views simply because SU leaders don't agree with them (however they seek to cast their disagreement) do we have any hope of changing the status quo.

Disclosure: The author contributed to No Offence magazine, but did not write any of the pieces discussed in this article.