Are Bans by Student Unions Silencing Free Speech?

In September last year, the University of East Anglia prevented a local Tex Mex from handing out sombreros at their Freshers Fair. In January, Edinburgh University Students Union banned dressing up as Pocahontas or Caitlin Jenner, as part of their new strict costume policy. This March, a Cambridge college decided to cancel an event themed ‘Around the World in 80 Days.’ These seem local incidents, but they are part of a bigger ‘trend’ of Student Unions around the UK banning things – costumes, songs, newspapers – for fear it will cause offence.

The 2016 Free Speech University Rankings, launched by online magazine ‘spiked’, reports Britain’s universities to be in a grip of “an epidemic” when it comes to bans. Their data shows that 90 per cent of institutions are now censoring speech, with Edinburgh University among the most restrictive. And the vast majority of these bans or restrictions are being put into place by student unions.

Universities should be a place reserved for “unfettered debate and the pursuit of truth,” according to coordinator of the rankings Tom Slater. “Today, students aren’t even trusted to dress themselves – let alone think for themselves.” Edinburgh University Student Association president Johnny Ross Tatam insists that student unions want students to debate challenging and contrasting ideas and that ‘that is exactly what happens in many of our societies across campus.’ However, the union itself should remain a safe space where nobody has to face racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic abuse, all student union representatives of the aforementioned universities agree.

Is this sheltering students from dissenting views? And thereby “betraying the most basic ideals of education,” according to Edinburgh student Charlie Peter, who began an online petition calling for the union to “reinstate and defend free speech.” Or should it be supported that student unions make sure everyone’s opinion is heard and respected?

Additionally, is anyone really offended by so-called racist costumes? In a response to the banning of sombrero’s at UEA, Richard Maudslay, chairman of the British Mexican Society, said that “These are not ‘funny hats’ in Mexico but are a part of national costume which are worn in several contexts and are sold to visitors from all over the world. No Mexican we know would oppose these being given out by a restaurant trying to attract people to savour Mexican cuisine.” Similarly, at an ASEAN & China cultural day at Strathclyde University, organised as part of their diversity week, I was enthusiastically asked if I wanted to wear a Vietnamese hat and pose for a picture with students in traditional Vietnamese clothing. While I felt slightly uncomfortable and inappropriate, they didn’t have any problem with it.

At occasions like this, people that have a particular background are the authority, and they judge whether it is cultural appropriation in an inappropriate and racist way or in way that is appreciative of culture diversity.  When this decision is left to students, who might not be aware of the indications of their costume, it’s a good thing that student unions step in. Student unions, after all, aren’t led by “campus bureaucrats,” as Tom Slater described them, but by students themselves, representing other students. Bans aren’t imposed by universities, but by us.

However, I think that unions should have more trust in students. It might be helpful to think in terms of strong (dis)encouragement, rather than imposing strict policies. In any case, this will be an on-going debate, one that we definitely shouldn’t shy away from.

[Aike Jansen]


Image: (of EUSA at the University of Edinburgh, found to be one of the most restrictive universities for free speech) 

1 Comment

  1. Great article. Good to hear a rational argument around this issue, one that supports free speech while taking into account the potential effect on students. Very valid points about people of the relevant background being the authority and advocation of more trust in students. Blanket bans and other such restrictive policies are not the way to go, but it is in the interest of students to educate each other on issues they not have otherwise been aware of.

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