The Blog

Students' Union Censorship is Glumly Predictable

With a heavy sense of impotence weighing on their shoulders, and in the spirit of 'making a difference', it seems almost inevitable that many will turn to this sort of self-aggrandising gesture politics: ban this, support that; censor this, 'stand in solidarity' with that.

Another day, another ban. In 1975, Yale's C Vann Woodward wrote that students should be able to 'think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable', yet in 2014 London South Bank University's Atheist Society have been censored for printing the 'unprintable'.

At a start of term event, the society were advertising for new members with an adapted version Michelangelo's famous 'Creation of Adam', featuring the invented deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, in the place of God. But soon union officials informed the group that their posters were "religiously offensive" and must be removed. Unsurprisingly, this piece of heavy-handed suppression has sparked a fierce debate about the power of sabbatical officers and freedom of speech. The British Humanist Association and the National Federation of Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Students Societies have dubbed the move "utterly ridiculous" and denounced "the rising tide of frivolous censorship" across British higher education.

They are quite right to do so. Whilst this was a self-evidently absurd piece of censorship, it is not an isolated event. Although the outrage that followed this decision is completely justified, we should not be shocked by officials' actions. Students' unions are well-versed in censorship. In fact, few institutions have richer traditions of this sort of illiberalism. And in recent months strait-laced union officials up and down the country seem to have rediscovered their censorial craving.

The furore surrounding the South Bank Atheist Society mirrors closely the anger around two students at the London School of Economics who were made to conceal their T-shirts which featured a satirical comic of Jesus and Mohammed. And it is not just religious dissenters who have felt the full weight of the unions' officious fists. In the past, sabbatical officers have boycotted Nestle products, removed The Sun from their union shops, and issued decrees claiming that the whole university stands in solidarity with Palestine. More recently, Birmingham University's Student Guild has banned people in certain fancy dress costumes from their bar, almost 20 unions have banned Robin Thicke's popular song 'Blurred Lines', and Kent Union has tried to ban BAE from promoting their graduate job opportunities.

Some of these bans may be well intentioned, but these intentions are substantially undermined by their ham-fisted implementation. Whilst based on sound ambitions, in practice, the NUS's 'No Platform' policy is simply unintellectual. Putting your figures in your ears, closing your eyes and hoping the bad people will go away is an unbelievably naïve reaction to what is a very serious problem. And the trend of students' unions marring their good intentions with clumsy policy has been noticed by others. After the widespread 'Blurred Lines' ban, Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said:

"What is ironic about the various bans issued by UK student union is that I know that they think of themselves as very forward-thinking, very progressive, very much in keeping with a new age of sensitivity and compassion. But they are echoing, in rationale and substance, the thinking of the old Victorian censors both in the UK and the United States in the nineteenth century."

But what Lukianoff failed to realise is that this Victorian censorship is the lifeblood of a student union official for a reason. The types of student who applies for sabbatical roles are, more often than not, those with pretentions to grandeur - self-interested busybodies and future Labour Home Secretaries - with a sprinkling lost souls scared of the job market. They are elected by a deplorably small percentage of the student electorate, and given precisely one year to 'make a difference' and construct their legacy. But soon, after their grandiose proposals are crushed by university bureaucracy, they realise how essentially powerless they are.

With a heavy sense of impotence weighing on their shoulders, and in the spirit of 'making a difference', it seems almost inevitable that many will turn to this sort of self-aggrandising gesture politics: ban this, support that; censor this, 'stand in solidarity' with that. Despite what their relatively cushy salary may have us believe, these tokenistic gestures are the only things they are good for. Censorship gives them a purpose, job satisfaction, and a feeling of moral superiority - when seen in this light, the widespread illiberalism of sabbatical officers doesn't seem quite so surprising.

But inevitable as it is, it is no excuse for imposing narrow-minded policies onto a diverse student community. Sabbatical officers must realise that these asinine bans are no route to progress. They simply further alienate students from their representative institutions. Unfortunately, until a larger number of students react against this censorial twaddle, nothing will change. But it must. The lamentable deficit in student democracy must be corrected to stop this crude censorship, which has no place in British education establishments.