THE BLOG

Censorship at UCLU?

06/03/2013 10:05 GMT | Updated 05/05/2013 10:12 BST

You are unlikely to have heard of Kirk Sneade and, once this week is over you will probably never hear of him again. For readers who exist outside of the University of London bubble Sneade can be best described as the most controversial, and some would say interesting, candidate in a student election for a long time. Mr Sneade is a candidate for the Women's Officer position within University College London Union, having 'self-identified' as a woman prior to the election Sneade is free to run for the position despite being a man and this, among many things, has caused a storm in the petri dish that is UCL.

The Sneade campaign may well have started as a joke, albeit one born out of a frustration with the student union that has seen a number of candidates stand in opposition to the left of liberal position the student union has occupied of recent years, the slogan 'Pints not Placards' adorning the posters of one candidate while Sneade himself has adopted the catchy 'We Sneade Change'. However his manifesto, a combination of a few serious points about the role of the student union scattered within Jack Whitehall-esque public school sexism has transformed the campaign into something that is anything but funny.

Yet the casual reader won't find the Sneade manifesto alongside the others on the UCLU website. The union, deciding the material is too offensive, has removed it and reportedly even refused to upload a revised, more serious, set of campaign goals. While there is no doubt that the original manifesto offended many, the union's decision to censor it is an ugly response to such offence. Rather than allowing candidates to take the Sneade campaign to task upon the contents of the manifesto the union has reduced the debate into a shouting match over sexism conducted via social networks rather than a serious debate on both the nature of Kirk Sneade's manifesto and serious points on the role of the student union, its size and accountability and the running of events that were, however tactlessly, raised in the original document. Does the union need both an Equalities Officer and a Women's Officer? Would the money required for such a position be better spent elsewhere? Does the union really work for students? These are all questions raised in the original document (which I must reconstruct from memory, having only read it once before its deletion) that have not been addressed.

The notion of censoring material because it is offensive or not in tune with a particular views of an institution has no place in free society, especially within the safe harbour of learning and debate that a university is supposed to provide. Not only does it reflect badly upon an institution, placing it in the company of the ignorant and tyrannical who attempt to expunge all traces of descent, but in this case it also denies the electorate a chance to asses every candidate fully. Without such an assessment how can the results of any election be treated as fair? Furthermore the censorship of campaign material sets a precedent that any material deemed offensive by the student union can be removed from circulation in official university channels. Perhaps next year the bar for censorship will be lowered from sexism to some lesser offense, further restricting the views which can be aired during the election fortnight.

This is not to say that the Sneade campaign and its supporters haven't, at best, been tactless in the way they have gone about spreading their message yet they still deserve to be heard. The campaign's support may be restricted to a vocal minority but to deny this group the union sponsored exposure that all other candidates get is very wrong. The lack of widely available material has starved what could have been an important debate both on sexism within the university and the role of the student union of any semblance of gravitas, resulting in directionless vitriol rather than well thought out comment. One could argue that as Sneade is highly unlikely to be elected and has caused widespread offense there is little point seriously engaging with his supporters. Yet this view, which the union has encouraged through its actions, ignored both the principals of a democratic election and the fact that in a country where the English Defense League and British National Party, organisations far more unpalatable than 'Kirk Sneade for Women's Officer', are given the right of free speech, offense is no grounds for censorship.