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Sun-Block: Students' Unions Have No Business in Censoring Newspapers

31/12/2013 23:27 GMT | Updated 01/03/2014 10:59 GMT

How to regulate newspapers engulfed in the phone-hacking scandal? That is a question which has provoked much national conversation in 2013. But on university campuses it all seems rather tame. Leveson might have proposed regulation and an administrator of fines for poor practice, but why bother with such meandering when you can simply remove the kind of content you don't like?

This is the blunt axe to which at least 29 Students' Unions have taken, not to some extremist pamplet, but to Britain's most-read newspaper. Now, at some of the UK's top universities, The Sun - which sells around 2.1 million copies a day - is notably absent.

The offending factor is, of course, Page 3. The soft pornographic feature has promoted widespread outrage from campaigners, but has also acted as a starting point for others to criticise a newspaper they regard in general as sensationalist, populist, simplistic, and quite frankly, lowbrow.

It is one thing to disapprove of a certain newspaper, but another entirely to say that fellow students shouldn't be able to read it. A broadsheet like The Times might be seen as a 'paper of record', but the front-pages of The Sun have in recent years proven more memorable: shameful 'The Truth' and 'Gotcha', for instance, or masterful 'Despot The Difference' and 'The Son'. To censor it is no small matter.

Notably, many of the processes upon which the newspaper has been banned raise cause for concern. One heated battle took place at LSE last year. A Union General Meeting vote was eventually held on the matter after an editorial in The Beaver revealed that the then General Secretary of LSESU, Alex Peters-Day, was considering the removal of The Sun from campus shops without a vote. In the event, the UGM saw 64% of around 80 vote in favour of a ban. Peters-Day later commented "I didn't see why we couldn't just pull it", and justified her original intentions on the basis that low sales of the paper meant it would have been "a good idea commercially". An enquiry by The Beaver, however, found that many other publications in campus shops were less profitable.

A democratic decision had eventually prevailed, but one member of the pro-censor camp was less willing to accept the right of fellow students to publicly disagree: student Nishma Doshi took it upon herself to rip-to-shreds copies of The Sun which were being handed out in protest by the Hayek Society. She later blogged that the protest intended to 'antagonise' the SU, and also suggested LSE should stop selling the Daily Express. The same blogpost accused the Hayek Society of 'taking it upon themselves to be the arbitrators of free speech'.

How ironic. Firstly, would self-proclaimed 'socialist' Peters-Day see the point of an SU shop purely to be 'commercial'? Secondly, if Doshi disagreed with the Hayek Society protest on the grounds that is was 'antagonistic', would she equally disagree with, say, Pussy Riot or the anti-tuition fees marches? One would think (rightly) not. Within reason, protests are supposed to be provocative - they should intend to make those in power feel uncomfortable.

It is a case which shows how limited a commitment many of our apparently progressive, liberal-minded student activists have toward concepts such as 'student voice', 'freedom of expression' and the 'right of protest'.

That was 2012, but cause for concern persists well into 2013. Small, randomly selected panels decided on students' behalves to ban The Sun at Leeds and Manchester; the latter a body of 20 people, the former only 12. Where committees were slightly larger, the margins of victory were hardly impressive: 57% of the UEA student council voted in favour; Aberyswyth's student assembly saw 26 votes in favour (61%) out of 42; and in Dundee, a ban scraped through by 59 votes to 57.

Do such results really reflect the opinions of students? Where SU's have dared to consult the electorates they are there to represent, the results suggest not. At Exeter, 2441 students voted in a referendum: 1504 (62%) voted against banning the newspaper. At York, a referendum attracting 1,331 students saw a landslide victory against censorship: 992 students voting against a ban (76%), and only 339 in favour. Furthermore, a poll by The Mancunion newspaper in Manchester - where a panel of 'randomly selected' students voted for a ban by 9 to 1 - revealed that 83% of 155 students surveyed on campus did not think the debate was something which the SU should be spending time on, while 59% wholly disagreed with the proposed ban.

On the limited evidence available, there seems to be a deficit of representation. But this is not simply a matter of democracy. In the absence of a consensus as to whether a picture of a topless woman is 'offensive', it seems unwise that fellow students should be able to prevent others from purchasing an entirely mainstream publication. What faith do campus leaders have in the ability of students to make conscious choices of their own?

Feminist campaigners say that Page 3 is a unique case and that there are no intentions to campaign against newspapers other than The Sun or the Daily Star. It is simply a small, symbolic gesture. But will further concessions be made to a group arguing that sexual images of women in their underwear are equally open to 'objectification'? Or a campaign which seeks to remove newspapers commonly found to demonise immigrants? There are already signs that banning The Sun would not suffice: Aberystwyth University removed the Daily Express on the grounds that its anti-EU immigration campaign was 'offensive' and inconsistent with the SU's 'Equal Opportunities Policy'.

No More Page 3 do make many worthwhile points, particularly regarding Page 3's portrayal of women, the suitability of soft pornography in a family newspaper, and the sexualisation of young people who may read a copy on the way home from school. But the group itself admits such concerns do not amount to a strong enough case for censorship: 'this is not about censorship', says the official website, but asking the editor of The Sun to remove Page 3 'voluntarily'.

However, another page on the same website calls for The Sun to be removed from SU shops. To 'censor' is to 'examine [a newspaper] officially and suppress unacceptable parts of it'. SU's have removed The Sun because of certain contents being deemed 'unacceptable'. Sounds like censorship to me?

One more thing. Critics of The Sun like to point out inaccuracies and imbalances in its reporting on a story-by-story basis. Take for example, Laurie Penny's justified attack on the recent '1,200 Killed By Mental Patients' headline. But with its online content now behind a paywall, and its print edition absent from newsstands, are we supposed to pretend The Sun doesn't exist? How will feminist campaigners on campus be able to highlight examples of its misogyny? Far better to air things in the open and let the best argument win. The fact that Rupert Murdoch and David Dinsmore have both considered removing Page 3 this year suggests feminist campaigning has been fruitful.

It should be noted that SU's have only 'banned' The Sun to the extent that their shops will no longer stock the newspaper. The world will not cave-in because a minuscule number of people have to find a local off-licence for their daily fix instead. But it is part of a wider trend: 2013 has seen a wave of trivial, but worrying, censorship encroach on student-life. Principle is at stake.

As colorful campaign banners are draped across campuses in the coming months, those running for SU executive positions next year - if they claim to believe in free speech - should be reminded of its key principle: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". We concede this to personal impulses at our peril.