Are Universities Curtailing Free Speech?

Are Universities Curtailing Free Speech?

Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists the tackle issues affecting students today. Alexandra Hill discusses the risks of no-platforming speakers and the amendment of course material in response to a general trend of increasing sensitivity in the UK’s universities. 

Universities have traditionally been environments fully open to a range of academic debates and few topics of discussion were off-limits within student discourse. However numerous reports and investigations into free speech at UK universities have uncovered some marked concerns: in many higher education institutions across the UK, a culture of no-platforming controversial speakers and evading discussion of difficult topics is appearing to jeopardise the tradition of free speech.

In October 2018, BBC Reality Check sent Freedom of Information requests to all UK universities.  Of the 120 responses they received, there were reported to have been 7 student complaints about course content being offensive.  At Leeds Beckett University, for example, a lecture on suicide terrorism was replaced with ‘alternative content’ unrelated to the original lecture information. At Keele University a novel that referred to the Hillsborough disaster was removed from the curriculum.

Removal of such materials, on such grounds, may not appear to directly constitute a violation of freedom of speech, but changes to curricula that are not made on an academic basis serve to silence important discussions with far-reaching implications in the modern-day world.  Whilst discussions on topics such as the Hillsborough disaster may be undoubtedly sensitive given the immense human cost of the tragedy, it does not detract from the importance of learning about these historical events, particularly when many lessons can be drawn both in the gross negligence that contributed to the 96 deaths and the subsequent failures of the criminal justice system.

Universities should have an inherent responsibility to explore these issues, dissect the competing narratives surrounding them and encourage open and uncensored debate over such contentious topics, as a means of allowing students to explore a variety of different perspectives and gain a better understanding of the challenges and implications raised by certain events or subjects.  As such, removing them from the curriculum deprives students of this.

The BBC report also found that out of the universities that responded to its Freedom of Information request, 6 speakers had been cancelled since 2010.  In 2015 Cardiff University cancelled a talk by Feminist writer Germaine Greer after the Women’s officer of the Student’s union launched a Change.org petition calling for Greer’s no-platform given that some of Greer’s transphobic comments were ‘problematic’ for some students.

This is one of numerous examples of so-called no-platforming, the practice adopted by the NUS and used too by many student unions to prevent potentially contentious speakers from attending university events.  Historically, such practice has been isolated only to speakers holding the most extreme of views, such as members of the EDL or neo-Nazi organizations, but now it seems to be adopted against far more moderate speakers and often public figures, academics and parliamentarians, many of whom would provide interesting insights on various contemporary issues. Greer, although undoubtedly controversial in her standpoints particularly in relation to trans-women, is a leading Cambridge academic and a frontal figure of the second-wave feminist movement and, given her position, would have provided students with an interesting insight on feminist issues.

Despite the fact that some figures may have certain stances which are unfashionable or potentially offensive to a student audience, this is only enough of a justification for no-platforming in the most severe of cases. Thus, instead of censorship, students should utilise the opportunity to challenge objectionable views, such as Greer’s, rather than simply pretending they don’t exist.

Many other incidences, not encapsulated in the BBC report, depict systematic silencing of controversial views. Spiked, the online newspaper, cites numerous examples, including the ban of sale of The Sun and The Star newspapers at Essex University and atheist posters being taken down at London South Bank University.  Spiked also introduced a traffic light ranking system for free speech on campus for most UK higher education institutions, where it ranks 55% of universities as red.  Concerningly, even a parliamentary inquiry into free speech in 2018 concurred that there were “a number of factors limiting free speech” in UK universities.

The multitude of situations that have been described highlight the point that nationally, across numerous universities in the UK, certain viewpoints are being removed from dialogue and open debate. Often, hard-hitting and contemporary topics are not given room to be discussed, in most cases by student unions, as these topics may induce offence to some audiences.

Whilst universities and their respective unions, particularly in a buyer’s market, do not wish to intentionally cause offense to students, particularly when league table rankings are partially derived from statistics on student satisfaction, in shielding them from the debate over potentially offensive views or tough subject matters, it is not only doing students an academic disservice but is compromising what universities and society in general have traditionally valued – free speech and a chance for all views and issues to be heard, debated and discussed.

Recent guidelines issued by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission on free speech on university campuses should be welcomed, reiterating that speakers should only be no-platformed when the safety of students is compromised or when their views infringe upon legal parameters. It also articulates that course content should not be altered wholly on the complaints of a small group of students. However, given that such advice is often difficult to enforce, inevitably the responsibility falls to students and their respective unions to ensure free speech, and all this entails, is not being unnecessarily curtailed.

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