Free Expression at GU

An investigation has been launched into how openly UK universities allow free speech on campus. Online news platform Spiked has addressed the issue by creating a Free Speech University Ranking using a traffic light colour coding system to determine how liberal different establishments are concerning autonomy of expression. Out of 115 institutions a mere 23 received a green rating indicating a ‘hands off approach to free speech’, whilst 47 were branded red having ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’.

This is a troubling statistic as universities are traditionally platforms for avid discussion of controversial issues, and students some of the most politically active and passionately opinionated members of society. Spiked’s findings suggest that students are becoming far less inclined to tackle big issues and encourage debate.

Upon first inspection, the data gives the impression of being somewhat flawed. The University of Edinburgh received an overall red ranking as a consequence of the student union banning the song ‘Blurred Lines’ and the Sun newspaper, as well as pledging to ‘end rape culture and lad banter on campus’.

In contrast, the QMU was deemed to have no restrictive policies, despite having also banned ‘Blurred Lines’. The bane of the free speech existence, however, appears to be the implementation of equality and diversity policies, as well as those aimed at bullying and harassment – the reasons behind Glasgow’s own amber rating. If this is the case then it appears odd that the SRC, whose main aim is to tackle student safety and welfare through such strategies, were also viewed to have no restrictive policies but the online ranking system.

The objective of the survey is to draw attention to a crucial problem; people appear increasingly reluctant to address key contentious issues in case of offense, and censorship is rapidly on the rise. However, what these rankings highlight is the need to distinguish between the notions of free speech and discrimination.

The policies deemed most restrictive are in place to prevent bullying and ensure that students have a safe and enjoyable university experience; there is a clear difference between being able to freely debate contesting points of view, and acting in a discriminatory or aggressive way because of personal values. It appears that the line between the politics and morality of free speech is becoming progressively blurred; the implication that Edinburgh University would have to tolerate sexist behaviour to earn their green free speech badge is questionable to say the least.

The collective analysis indicates that 80% of UK universities censor free speech. However, the majority of censorship that contributes to this statistic comes not from the university itself, but from the student body and its unions. This is perhaps a surprising revelation as one might instinctually assume that the problem lies in the dusty old pre-historic values of the institutions themselves. In reality it is the students that are contributing to this environment of keen censorship and smothering of free speech rights.

However, censorship is not always inherently negative. In the case of something like ‘Blurred Lines’ it can be viewed as students exercising their free speech rights, rejecting misogyny and speaking out about issues that are important to them. This does not mean they are unquestionably opposed to hearing or acknowledging the other side of the argument.

So what action can the impassioned individual take to tackle this problem? Spiked is inviting readers to join the ‘Down with Censorship!’ campaign, aiming to eradicate all forms of censorship on university campuses. So far 1377 people have signed up, and debates on free speech are being held at universities across the UK; Glasgow may well be opening its doors to the campaign at some point in the future.

The difficulty of providing a forum in which anyone can voice his or her individual opinions and beliefs without consequence is a real one, and one that needs to be addressed fully. It is imperative that students are engaged in the debate of contentious issues without being shielded from them by university or union policies or interests. However, it is vital to remember that this can be done in a leveled and non-aggressive fashion, and this is where the key distinction lies.

[Annie Milburn]

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