The stifling of free speech at the UK’s universities is now “an epidemic” as it is revealed students’ unions (SU) are four times more likely to put bans in place on campus than the universities themselves, according to new data.
Launched by online magazine spiked, 2016’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) have shown 90 per cent of institutions are now censoring speech, up from 80 per cent in 2015, as Aberystwyth University and the universities of Edinburgh and Leeds are among those for being the most restrictive.
Russell Group institutions have emerged as being the most censorious overall, this year, with 23 out of 24 of its world-class institutions having been flagged-up as being either ‘amber’ or ‘red’ in FSUR’s traffic-light ranking system.
According to the data, UK institutions have, all in all, enacted 148 bans, or actions, over the past three academic years. The vast majority have been put into place by SUs - 125 bans compared with just 23 put into place by universities - and the most common ones have included the banning of newspapers (30 institutions), songs (25), and sports clubs or societies (20).
Tom Slater, coordinator of the rankings, described how universities are meant to be spaces reserved for “unfettered debate and the pursuit of truth.” However, he added: “Today, in a time when campus bureaucrats see students as too vulnerable - or too easily led - to listen to difficult ideas, the entire purpose of the academy is being undermined, and the bar for censorship is only getting lower.
The most common cases of censorship were found to be centred around transgender debates, atheists and secularists, Israel and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, lad culture, and Muslim clerics.
Some policies and bans which showed the “sillier side of campus censorship” included the banning of offensive hand gestures and ‘racist’ sombreros.
In its safe space policy, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association explains what hand gestures are and are not offensive, and says: “Gestures indicating agreement are permissible, if these gestures are generally understood and not used in an intimidating manner... Applause is acceptable when a motion is passed only, not if a motion fails to pass. Otherwise, agreement should be made clear within debate contributions.”
Northumbria’s SU has a policy to instruct students on what does and does not constitute an offensive costume, and its vice president welfare, Matt Auden, recently wrote of the SU fancy dress policy: “If you are in doubt, don’t wear it. There are a million entertaining costumes to pick from. Your desire to be ‘funny’ or ‘edgy’ is not greater than every student’s right to feel like NSU is a safe space.”
The most bizarre ban of all, said FSUR, came from Swansea University Students’ Union when, in October 2013, the trustee board voted to ban the Swansea Student Pole Fitness Society after concluding it was “inextricably linked to the multi-million-pound sex industry.”
One under-reported trend in campus censorship to have emerged is attempts by SUs to clamp down on pro-life groups, said FSUR. In September 2014, for example, Dundee University Students’ Association banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from its freshers’ fair, despite the group having had a stall in previous years.
As well as this, SUs at Derby, Goldsmiths, University of East London (UEL), and Oxford have all passed policies restricting pro-life expression and banning particular groups, with the Against Anti-Abortion Groups on Campusgroup at Derby’s SU having said: “This union holds the viewpoint that: students have the right to safety on campus, and not to be faced with hate groups...who can be incredibly harmful in their nature.”
Mr Slater did, however, describe how there is light at the end of the tunnel, and said: “In the past year, spiked has met and worked with students across the country who are committed to turning the tide on campus censorship, many of whom worked on this project.
“Here’s hoping the FSUR can give students the weight of evidence they need to fight back. And here’s hoping university authorities and academics, who have so long ignored the threat facing the academy, take a stand of their own.”
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