Freedom of Speechlessness

Posted by Kristina Murkett

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, free speech has resurfaced as one of the most complex and troubling issues of our times. It is a particularly complicated problem in the case of universities, who should be the pinnacle of intellectual debate and open-mindedness, but are apparently some of the worst perpetrators of censorship.

In 2011, initiation ceremonies were banned at Exeter, Gloucestershire and Lancaster universities. In 2012, universities such as LSE, Edinburgh and Chester">ManChester boycotted The Sun over Page 3. In 2013, Birmingham's university student union banned 'racist' sombreros and native American dress from being worn on campus, whilst Bath Spa University banned the Student Union from playing Robin Thicke's controversial song 'Blurred Lines'. In 2014, Oxford University, of all places, shut down an abortion debate, and an athetist group at London South Bank university were asked to remove their posters. In 2015, a talk by Marie Le Pen had to be postponed as protestors attempted to block entrances to the Oxford Union. Noticing a trend here?

Research by online magazine Spiked shows that 80% of universities, as a result of their official policies and actions, have either restricted or actively censored free speech and expression on campus beyond the requirements of the law. In the survey, each university administration and students' union were graded either green, amber, or red - and the 5 worst performers, all graded 'red', were Essex, Portsmouth, Northampton, Bath Spa and The University of the West of England.

Essex in particular has come under scrutiny as a recent talk by Israel's deputy ambassador had to be shut down after students protested, heckled, and even tried to storm the building, to the point that security admitted that they could no longer guarantee the speaker's safety. Professor Thomas Scotto confessed that '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. One of the key goals of the university is 'excellence in education': I don't think we accomplish this when an element of the study body believes the only appropriate tools they have when confronted with ideas and people they disagree with is to throw temper tantrums and employ heckler's vetoes.'

Listening to and rigorously questioning high-profile speakers about controversial global issues is hugely important for undergraduates, and a life-skill - especially for anyone who wants to work in public life. Yet more and more universities are questioning whether freedom of speech means protecting a right to offend - and what exactly constitutes 'excellence in education.' Should university be a 'safe place' for all, or a place where anything, and anyone, can be debated?

Tom Slater, assistant editor at Spiked and co-ordinator of the project, has an interesting theory about why more and more universities are choosing censorship over controversy. Slater argues that 'universities have developed a therapeutic ethos, where students are no longer seen as confident adults, but as vulnerable, and if you tell them that they need to be looked after and protected, then students develop this idea of themselves, and vulnerability becomes a kind of badge.' Yet can rigorous intellectual challenge really be seen as too 'scary' for students to cope with? Surely this defeats the point of rigorous intellectual challenge in the first place?

This self-fulfilling prophecy may have political implications too. The home secretary, Theresa May, is threatening universities with legal sanctions via a new counter-terrorism bill unless they act to prevent radicalisation on campus - which means that many vice-chancellors might start to prioritize acting lawfully over genuinely ensuring staff and student safety. Having said this, Spiked's rankings show that it is not actually usually university managements that are behind outright censorship on campus: only 9.5% have done so, compared to 51% of student unions.

Professor Dennis Hayes, head of the centre for educational research at Derby University, also noted that 'vice chancellors are often very supportive of academic freedom and free speech. But in lower levels of management, when they're making decisions, there's this sensitivity about not upsetting students which makes it impossible to have a proper debate.'

Universities are right in saying that they should not tolerate offensive or extremist activities, and should ensure that all staff and students are treated with dignity and respect. Yet the determination of student unions to rule on what students should and shouldn't see or discuss is more worrying, because it seems to have marked a shift from universities defending freedom of speech, to defending freedom of speechlessness - their right to shut down a debate because it was 'voted' in, or their right to ban a song because it wasn't challenged by the university.

As Bill Durodie from the University of Bath said, 'feelings are not sacrosanct. The solution to bad speech is more speech, not regulated speech' - and certainly not speechlessness.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, free speech has resurfaced as one of the most complex and troubling issues of our times. It is a particularly complicated problem in the case of universities, who should be the pinnacle of intellectual debate and open-mindedness, but are apparently some of the worst perpetrators of censorship.