Picture by: Jennifer Moo
Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech and to offer a framework in which to confront students with open and challenging debate, yet just six per cent of UK universities offer such a free environment.
The 2017 Free Speech University Rankings reveal the worrying trend of rising censorship on campuses. Between ban-happy students' unions and restrictive university policies, students are being policed on everything from appropriate fancy dress costumes to how they speak about religion or gender.
While it's easy to ridicule policies outlawing Pocahontas costumes and 'sexual noises', they speak to a wider, underlying problem of censorship on campus. Policies at universities and students' unions have become so far-reaching and pernicious that they seek to control not only students' public life on campus, but also their private relationships - a trend that can be seen most clearly in the springing up of creepy sex consent classes.
It would not be fair, though, to suggest this obsession for censorship comes only from overzealous students' unions' officials. This year's FSUR results show a troubling increase in restrictive policies from the universities themselves. At London South Bank University, the Code of Practice for Freedom of Speech says that inviting a speaker who is likely to 'commit blasphemy' constitutes an 'unlawful meeting'. Moreover 43 per cent of universities censor speech that might offend religious people. A key area in the fight for free speech was the right to criticise faith, and yet many universities seem keen to turn back the clock.
President of the National Union of Students Malia Bouattia wrote on Friday in the Huffington Post, that she and her fellow proponents of No Platform and Safe Space policies were 'true champions of liberty'. What a joke. She claimed that of 50 students' unions surveyed (by students' union network changesu), no bans on speakers were found. Well, that is less than half of the UK's students' unions. spiked's FSUR results found 21 students unions had banned speakers in the past three academic years. At the end of 2016, students' unions at City, Queen Mary and Plymouth universities banned the sale of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express on campus. Bouattia complains students are being accused of 'closing our ears and shutting out the world', but that is exactly what students' unions are doing.
The pro-Safe Space brigade always give the same defence for their restrictive policies, claiming that implementing rules on what language is acceptable and how people should interact, allow greater freedom of expression for marginalised, oppressed groups. The argument that more censorship equates to greater free speech is nothing short of Orwellian.
Student censor supporters often raise their opposition to the government's counter-terrorism Prevent policy as proof of their free speech credentials. But the truth is that insidious policies like Prevent could not be carried out without the framework for ever-expanding campus bureaucracy built up by students' unions and universities over the years. The government's 2011 Prevent strategy even praises the NUS No Platform policy as a 'largely effective' means of challenging extremism.
The NUS lists six organisations on its No Platform list, that may not seem like much, but the point is there should not be a list in the first place. In defence of No Platform policies for fascists, Bouattia writes: 'We know that if someone is allowed to freely espouse racist views without challenge, it can directly contribute to a culture where people from those oppressed groups and communities no longer feel safe.' Yet if you outright ban a speaker, then no-one gets the opportunity to challenge their views.
If students never encounter an extreme view, or even someone they disagree with, how will they cope in the real world when faced with such a situation? Instead of constantly trying to cosset and coddle the student population, university and student representatives should actively be encouraging their students to enter into challenging and robust debate on all topics and with all kinds of people. It is only by exposing bad ideas in the public realm, that you can really tackle them. And it is only by hearing those ideas that you learn how to finetune your arguments, win the debate, and, ultimately, develop as an adult with a keen political self.
Luckily there are pockets of students ready to stand up to the student censors and defend their right for no-holds-barred free speech. Hopefully this year's FSUR results will spur even more students' into action, out of their Safe Spaces and into the real world.