Do UK universities have a problem with free speech? A few weeks ago a new incident, this time at UCL, reanimated the debate surrounding liberty of speech at these UK institutions. According to the Independent, a student reporter was threatened with dismissal after obtaining information on forecasts that the university would obtain a bigger cash surplus from student accommodation. A new incident that added to a string of events in the last years and months, including the attempt to ban the Speakeasy Society at LSE, or the banning of the Nietzsche Society in 2014 at UCL which prompted a response from counter movements, such as the Humans of Free Speech created at King’s College London, the annual ranking on Spiked magazine of UK university and their tolerance for free expression, or the movement Right2Debate, a student-led campaign that promotes pluralism and the right to debate within universities.
The issue has been a talking point for a while, and recurring in the national press: but is freedom of speech increasingly at risk at national universities? The debate has mainly surrounded Student Unions (rather than universities, as in the UCL case) who have banned a series of items in the last few years. As Spiked shows, only 9.5% of university managements have banned items or events: 51% of student unions have actively banned something, in data for 2014.
Songs and the press: most banned items at UK campuses
According to data from Spiked, 135 bans of various sorts had been imposed within university campuses in the previous three years. Within these, there are some issues on which Unions have fixated: songs deemed sexist, national newspapers such as The Sun, The Express, adverts for payday loans… In 2015, it was the press who suffered from most bans at higher education institutions. At least 28 of top universities in the UK banned either The Sun, The Express, The Daily Star, page 3 or lads magazines throughout the year. In Bristol and Manchester, the french satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was banned too. Reasons that have been given for the usually deem these press items too offensive for the general consumption of its students.
In second came the song Blurred Lines, by Robin Thicke: at least 25 of the UK’s top universities banned or condemned the song, which has been criticized for appearing to glorify rape and violent sex. Other contentious issues have been sports clubs or teams that have issued or presented offensive tweets (York rugby team and the Oxford Brookes football team), songs (Stirling hockey team), leaflets (LSE rugby team) games, (UEA banned a hockey team for playing gay chicken) or even power-points (as was the case for a Cardiff University football team). Issues such as Israel and Israeli speakers have sparked debate. BDS, a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights, has received support in universities such as UWE, Swansea, Exeter or Liverpool.
Numerous voices have criticized the move by many unions, but many have also presented their defense: many argue the issues banned where voted on, and that unions themselves were elected. The protection of students has also been argued, as well as the condemning of issues such as sexism, rape, homophobia or racism, which, according to some unions, does not stop discussion of these issues, but merely shows that these behaviours ‘aren’t acceptable on campus’.
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