80% of British Universities Fail Free Speech Test

Since Brendan O’Neill’s pointed essay “Free speech is so last century. Today’s students want the ‘right to be comfortable’” last November, I’ve been more aware of how conformist today’s student really can be when it comes to the party line handed down from above. I also get an interesting perspective from my oldest, a ‘free thinking’ student himself, battling against a PC orthodoxy apparently swallowed hook, line and sinker, by his peers. We’re all entitled to our opinion of course, and one man’s brainwashed orthodoxy is another’s valid point of view, so it’s useful that Spiked Magazine has some more empirical research that allows us to step briefly away from a war of words, to something more concrete.

Using some defined criteria Spiked have produced what they are calling “The Free Speech University Rankings” (FSUR), announced as the UK’s first university rankings for free speech. They’ve surveyed all British universities, examining the policies and actions of universities and students’ unions, and ranked them using a traffic-light system. What I find most interesting is that this more formal study is able to put a figure on the proportion of university institutions which curtail free speech in policy and action – and that figure is 80%.

The traffic light system is straightforward and concerning, in a way, that such levels of censorship are actively pursued in university settings. A ‘red’ ranking, awarded to 41% of institutions indicates that ideas have been banned and actively censored on campus. An ‘orange’ ranking was given to 39% who had chilled free speech through intervention and the ‘green’ rank was awarded to the 20% of institutions deemed to have a hands-off approach to free speech.

Examples of policies or actions taken by ‘red’ ranking universities or their student unions which infringe free expression, by either adopting one point of view as policy, or banning/censoring certain viewpoints or media, include:

In the hall of shame, ranked red or orange, we have, such well known historical seats of learning and free thinking as Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the mentor of many of our political leaders the London School of Economics and Political Science. Ranked green we have the likes of Trinity St. David, Winchester, Buckingham and the London Met.

You might be forgiven for thinking it would be the intervention of dusty old Deans and Chancellors overseeing ‘correct’ dissemination of opinion, but in fact the research revealed that the Student Unions, not the Universities, were actually the most restrictive. 51% of student unions were ranked red, while only 9.5% of universities deserved the most damning rating, all of which paints a picture of students imposing their restrictions on other students, actively supporting the restriction to free speech rights which, in former days, you would have seen students campaigning to loosen further rather than curtail.

As O’Neill explained in his essay “In each case, it wasn’t the fact the students disagreed with me that I found alarming — disagreement is great! — it was that they were so plainly shocked that I could have uttered such things, that I had failed to conform to what they assume to be right, that I had sought to contaminate their campuses and their fragile grey matter with offensive ideas.”

The fact is that free speech is a precious commodity, and an attack on the free speech of one person is an attack on the free speech of everyone.

Perhaps, like me, some of the censorship actually resonates with your personal opinion. On a personal level I actually wouldn’t care if the Sun newspaper were banned from campus, or if students were required to be less sexually overt in their behaviour, comments and cat-calls. But, on the flip side, I would strongly object to speakers being ‘no platformed’, and institutions taking sides on controversial issues through policy. Can I expect to have one, without the other? Or should I simply demand free speech for all, even if I disagree with how you might use it? The fact is that free speech is a precious commodity, and an attack on the free speech of one person is an attack on the free speech of everyone.

Perhaps what it really comes down to, as with many private organisations, is that a university is entitled to have rules of membership, and require that members comply.

Andre Walker, writing on Breitbart.com, has a perspective that prompts me to ask where free speech is concerned – what is the motive for this action or policy?

“The ratings come as more and more educational institutions are being exposed for either ‘no platforming’ speakers or teaching their students that various politicians are ‘fascists’. The issue of free speech is also in focus after the attack on Charlie Hebdo suggested that terrorists may be trying to impose Sharia blasphemy laws in Europe.”

Whether the motive is simply well meaning imposition of rules for wellbeing, or whether it’s more idealogically driven control of the message (which I suggest it really is if sides are being taken at a policy level), it’s worth being aware of this research from Spiked. If you’re going to have to comply, you’d better know what you’re complying with.