Free speech on the wane in UK universities: only 20% of them don’t impose censorship

May 19, 2015 • 12:46 pm

This report comes from the February 2 issue of the Guardian, but it’s likely to still be accurate—or even worse. The article reports on a survey by the online magazine Spiked of how much censorship of speech occurred at 115 British universities; that is, whether speech was suppressed even more severely than the law mandates.

This isn’t just an off-the-cuff survey; as the Guardian notes, the rankings “were overseen by Professor Dennis Hayes, head of the centre for educational research at Derby University and Dr Joanna Williams, senior lecturer in higher education at Kent university – show each university administration and students’ union graded green, amber or red based on an assessment of their policies and actions. Institutions have been given an overall ranking based on the two combined.”

Here are the Spiked ratings, in alphabetical order by category, with a key (if you go to the site, you can click on each diamond and see the reasons for the university’s ranking).  Note that the Guardian mentions that some ranking criteria may be a bit wonky.

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That’s four out of five universities with some speech restrictions beyond the law, and that’s sad. A few examples from the article:

  • Professor Thomas Scotto, of Essex University’s department of government, invited Israel’s deputy ambassador to give a talk to political science students, he hoped for “lots of disagreement: that the speaker would express his views and that the students would challenge him”.Instead, a noisy protest outside the venue ramped up into an attempt to storm the building, students in the lecture theatre heckled the Israeli diplomat, and it became impossible for him to begin. With feelings running high, university security said they could no longer guarantee the speaker’s safety. The event had to be abandoned.“It broke my heart that some students came with pages and pages of notes ready to challenge the speaker, and that was wasted because other students violently opposed him being there,” says Scotto. “One of the key goals of the university is ‘excellence in education’: I don’t think we accomplish this when an element of the student body believes the only appropriate tools they have when confronted with ideas and people they disagree with is to throw temper tantrums and employ hecklers’ vetoes.”
  • At Portsmouth University, student union president Grant Clarke says in a statement that policies aimed at defending students from racist, sexist and homophobic harassment don’t preclude people from openly talking and discussing these issues, “but we don’t accept these behaviours on our campus”.

This one really gets me for its blatant hypocrisy (my emphasis).

  • . . . at Essex, bans on certain newspapers are framed by student union president Chantel Le Carpentier as “a commercial decision to boycott the Sun and the Star from sale in our shop based on their representation of women in the media and sexist attitudes … We use our freedom of speech to urge people not to buy it by not stocking it on campus.”

Now why is Oxford in red? Spiked says this (more details are given at the page):

The University of Oxford and the Oxford University Students’ Union and its constituent colleges collectively create a hostile environment for free speech. The university, which has received an Amber ranking, restricts ‘offensive’ and ‘needlessly provocative’ speech as part of its Free Speech and Bullying and Harassment policies. It also bans the publishing of racist, sexist or homophobic material using university computer services and banned a controversial debate on abortion in 2014. The students’ union, which has received a Red ranking, places restrictions on pro-life groups, and the common rooms have, collectively, disbanded a rugby team, lobbied the Oxford Union to rescind a speakers’ invitation and banned ‘Blurred Lines’.

And why is Cambridge amber? It’s not the administration, but the students, who have also banned the Sun:

The University of Cambridge and the Cambridge University Students’ Union collectively create a chilling environment for free speech. The university, which has received a Green ranking, holds no substantial restrictions on speech, other than a minor restriction on ‘offensive’ emails. The students’ union, which has received an Amber ranking, places restrictions on ‘aggressive’ and ‘disrespectful’ speech in student meetings and uses an inflated definition of sexual harassment that could be used to restrict speech and opinion. The students’ union has also banned the Sun newspaper. Due to the severity of the students’ union policies and actions, the institution’s overall ranking is Amber.

Finally, who’s doing the censoring? As in the U.S., it seems to be largely the students. The Guardian notes this:

In fact, Spiked’s rankings show it is not usually university managements that are behind outright censorship on campus: only 9.5% have done so, according to the research. By contrast, 51% of student unions have actively censored certain types of speech or instituted bans. “Students’ own representative bodies are far more censorious than universities,” says Slater. [Tom Slater, assistant editor of Spiked].

Students are also responsible for the amber ranking of the University of Manchester, but I won’t embarrass Matthew with the details. I can only imagine what would happen, both in the U.S. and U.K., if students ran the universities.

33 thoughts on “Free speech on the wane in UK universities: only 20% of them don’t impose censorship

  1. This is really sad.

    It also has a lot to say about the debate within the atheist movement in recent years over certain issues of precisely the sort that is behind these restrictions on free speech in the UK.

    Actively embracing and tightly connecting you movement to what social “liberalism” is a recipe for disaster, and anyone supposedly rational and scientifically minded should be able to see that and not do it… But the opposite has happened

  2. Refusing to stock The Sun, or any other newspaper, is not the same as banning it.

    If students wish to buy the Sun, there are dozens of newsagents in Cambridge where they can do so.

    But why shoud a Student Union be obliged to stock (and therefore pay for) a newspaper which is notorious for its sexism, and its hostility towards immigrants and people living on benefits?

    This is not an issue of censorship. As far as I can see, nobody says that students are not allowed to buy or read the Sun, merely that it will not be available at the Student Union.

    1. I interpreted the statement differently. I took it to mean that the student government passed a law or rule preventing any on-campus stores from stocking it and selling it, taking the decision out of the store’s hands. Was I wrong in that?

      I may be making an incorrect cultural assumption. In the US, Universities do not generally pay for newspapers and then give them out free to the students (excepting school newspapers). AIUI the standard practice is for the local on-campus store(s) to act as retail distributor, and in that case they just stock what sells, which is typically the bigger local papers. Examples: if you’re in New York, the local student tore will stock the NYT. If you’re in Berkeley, it will stock the San Francisco Chronicle. If UK universities are similar, then yes I would say it is fairly censorious for the student government to tell the on-campus stores “no, you can’t stock that paper even if its popular with students, because we don’t like their political slant.”

      1. I took it to mean that the student government passed a law or rule preventing any on-campus stores from stocking it and selling it, taking the decision out of the store’s hands. Was I wrong in that?

        Yes, that’s wrong. The student unions have no power to do that, and anyhow Cambridge doesn’t really have a “campus”, it’s a collection of university buildings in a town. Any newsagents in that area can do as they like.

        But, Cambridge college “junior common rooms” generally buy a selection of newspapers and magazines for communal reading. Effectively this vote just requests (requests rather than demands, since the individual colleges have a degree of autonomy) that the JCRs don’t buy The Sun.

    2. Yes that’s my reading of it too. The Students’ Union is an autonomous body, and it would a Really Bad Thing if the University authorities told them what to do!

      To put Jerry’s point the other way round: “I can only imagine what would happen if universities ran the students’ union.”

      So, I’m not embarrassed. If the University of Manchester had taken action to limit (or “chill”) freedom of speech, that would be very different.

      Finally, non-UK readers should note that freedom of speech is not absolute in the UK. It is not written into the UK Constitution, as there isn’t even a Constitution!

      As Wikipedia puts it: “Expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person’s colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation is forbidden. Any communication which is threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden. The penalties for hate speech include fines, imprisonment, or both.”

      From this point of view, the whole of the UK ‘chills’ free speech, but I can’t say it worries me. Compared to the way things used to be done, this is better.

      – MC

      1. Just to confirm that position, here’s the report of what the Cambridge decision on The Sun was (Cambridge is collegiate, which means that there is a university-wide Students’ Union, and each college also has a students’ union, which does things like buy a selection of papers for a common room):

        College representatives have backed a motion to join the national No More Page Three campaign which asks the paper’s editor Dominic Mohan to “drop the bare boobs from The Sun”.

        The unanimous vote means colleges which provide student copies of the paper infamous for its pictures of topless women will vote on whether to continue to do so.

        Pembroke and Queen’s colleges have already passed the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) boycott.

        “Individual students are still able to buy The Sun but the colleges should not be paying for the students to read The Sun whilst page 3 is still included.”

        CUSU resolved to support both the No More Page 3 campaign and negotiations by colleges’ student committees about boycotting The Sun in their colleges until the “pornographic” page three is ditched.

        1. In that case I guess I retract my complaint. Its each college’s money; they can buy what they want with it.

      2. The UK does have a constitution, it’s just not all written in one place. The UK constitution is codified but a whole variety of English, Scottish and British laws from different periods in history.

        As for Freedom of Expression itself, that is incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights act, but the list of exceptions (as recorded by Wikipedia) is quite impressive.

  3. As I recall this kind of self-righteous student activism has been pretty common continuously since the 1960s. What’s slightly different now is the extent to which, when the banning/disinviting/no-platforming is challenged and university administrations are required to respond, they are increasingly siding with the students or allowing them to get away with it. It’s another aspect of the dismal process by which students are being transformed into customers, and universities into businesses — and the customer is never wrong.

      1. Mine isn’t even mentioned but then again it doesn’t really have a campus either (OU).

  4. To be fair to Essex, that seems to be a case of a talk being disrupted by protesters, which can happen at any public lecture.

    Presumably you wouldn’t be against people protesting outside such events — which would be to diminish *their* freedom of speech.

  5. I wouldn’t take these ratings too seriously. Bangor gets an amber rating (“has chilled free speech through intervention”) because of this:

    “Definition of bullying includes ‘asserting a position of intellectual superiority in an aggressive, abusive or offensive manner whether orally or in writing, publicly or in private’.”

    But the same document says:

    “Legitimate, constructive and fair criticism of staff or student performance or conduct
    will not be considered to be bullying or harassment provided that those involved are
    treated with dignity, courtesy and respect.”

    Now in my view an academic community ought to be a place where people are treated with dignity, courtesy and respect, and where people don’t act in an aggressive, abusive or offensive manner. Don’t you agree? To borrow the words of Bill and Ted, why not aim to be excellent to each other?

    Note: the site gives no evidence that anyone was actually disciplined, or had their free speech chilled, under these rules.

  6. Am I correct in seeing that Darwin’s alma maters of Edinburgh and Cambridge are red and yellow, respectively? Well, we sure wouldn’t want any current students to think for themselves, challenge dogma, or come up with anything that might upset the dominant paradigm; it might cause butt-hurt. Clearly Darwin’s “punching down” won’t be tolerated these days!

  7. It is bad enough for students to cause a university to retract from this or that event, like having a speaker, but it would be the tail wagging the dog if students are allowed to inscribe policies about free speech on campus. These and other instances are edging close to doing just that.

    1. Brilliant speech. Thanks for sharing. and I think this little bit sums it up pretty well we he said that this type of liberal censorship, or bi-polar thinking as he called it, is

      “…a suffocating form of intellectual tribalism and a poor way of thinking for yourself.”

      I may have to finally get around to reading one of his novels one of these days.

  8. What other conclusion is there but that students are postponing adult status until they leave the confines of the institutions and inter the real world. We can only hope that maturity is reached at some point. It’s not only if, but when does one choose to throw away childish things.

      1. Yes, and the mollycoddling you refer to could also account for many of the children today, at least in America, staying at home much longer than they use to. It is probably not as bad as the Italian boy who stays single and therefore continues to stay at home with mom into his 30s or at least takes the wash to mom every week.

  9. That anecdote about the Israeli ambassador being heckled so badly his safety could not be assured is just awful!

    1. I was curious about this so looked it up on youtube. Unless things went downhill rapidly after the videos available ended the safety claim seems to be pushing it just a tad.
      Protestors come across as nobbish but not violent.

      1. “the safety claim seems to be pushing it just a tad.
        Protestors come across as nobbish but not violent.”

        So the university was using the “safety” issue as an excuse to give in to the protestors?

  10. I am having a problem with there being something wrong with Page 3. As far as I can tell, it is the only reason to buy The Sun. It is certainly not the insightful reporting and analysis of the issues.

    I can’t help thinking we have gone overboard with respect to the naked human form.

    1. Most thoroughly agreed.

      But then I only used to read Playboy for the articles. 😉

    2. It *is* kind of strange to get stories of Brits caterwauling about boobs in newspapers on threads like this… and then hear caterwauling about US puritanism on other threads. Its damned if you do, damned if you don’t I guess.

  11. Anyone have an idea the percentage of students in favor of these restrictions?

    I keep thinking that there are lots and lots of students chafing and angry with the pc/multicultural juggernaut and its stifling effect.

  12. Ashamed that my former uni is in the “Red” category. I don’t remember this sort of thing happening when I was there 20-some years ago, mind you.

  13. Things are worse. Bath (orange) and UEA (green) have both moved into the red part of the graphic in the last few months. And those are only the ones I know about.

  14. You have to wonder whether these students are ready for the world of the big people where they be looking to protect the vunerable rather than insisting on being protected from things they don’t like.
    Just how demanding are their courses, they seem to have far too much time for play.
    I’m of an age where, in England at least, you most likely didn’t know anybody who went to University let alone went yourself. I would have eaten a pair of Jerry’s most worn boots for the opportunity and all these youngsters can do is complain, demand and waste a lot of people’s time

  15. My daughter is going off to Keele in September. I was happy to see that Keele was in the green zone. There were lots of factors involved in her choice of uni but this was certainly one of them.

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