THE BLOG

We Must Protect Freedom of Speech, But Not at the Cost of Student Safety

18/01/2016 17:26 GMT | Updated 18/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Today, Spiked - the online magazine and self-described 'metaphorical missile against misanthropy' - launched its annual Free Speech University rankings.

This survey of universities and students' unions ranks each institution according to a traffic light system, the results claiming that 90% of universities censor speech. This sounds shocking but it's worth drilling down into the categorisation of these rankings to discover their misleading nature.

Universities are labelled as "hostile to free speech and free expression" for having bullying and harassment and equal opportunities policies. That's right - policies that protect individuals from being discriminated against on the basis of their race or sexuality and from being harassed in the workplace. This is what universities are being 'judged' on - to call this laughable is an understatement. Let's get one thing clear. Protecting women from sexual harassment is not a curb on free speech.

And then come the attacks on students' unions. We are 'judged' by Spiked for having No Platform for Racists and Fascists as well as legally recommended external speakers' policies. These decisions are subject to well-thought out and thorough processes and are monitored under the Charities Commission. Neither of these mean 'wrapping students up in cotton wool' as so many free speech campaigners repeat. In fact, students' unions house some of the most interesting and diverse debates.

It would be wonderful if the principles of freedom of speech meant everyone had equal right to speak. But unfortunately that isn't the case. It is the most powerful, those who are able to shout loudest, who are heard above the rest. This is often to the detriment of the marginalised and those from minority groups. It is the diversity of views and everyone's right to be heard that we are protecting.

Because for many students, their students' union is a place they can meet new people, join societies (whether that be a sports team, a faith group or a student media outlet to name a few examples), and broaden their horizons outside of the lecture theatre. Put simply; their students' union is the one place they feel safe. Students live in the real world. That can mean experiencing racist, sexist and homophobic abuse for simply being who they are.

No one is arguing that universities and students' unions should be devoid of debate, conflicting views and challenges to the views of those who pass through institutions. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are key cornerstones of our academic tradition and should be protected. But it is also laughable to suggest that freedom of expression has no limits. And that line is drawn at those who do not believe in freedom of speech at all. Despite the media believing otherwise, our own No Platform policy at NUS contains only five organisations. This isn't about 'banning' people we don't like, it's about keeping fascists off campus.

So yes, of course we must protect freedom of speech. But this should not be at the expense of students' wellbeing and safety, and it should never mean an open invite to those who do not believe in democracy itself.

Richard Brooks is NUS vice president for union development