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.
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.