The Censorship Epidemic

Chance Layton

Restrictions on free speech in England are at an all-time high. According to the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) released yesterday by the online magazine Spiked, nearly 90 percent of all universities in the UK censor speech. That’s up from 80% last year, the first year that Spiked compiled the rankings.

Spiked’s survey reports that universities regularly crack down on disfavored ideas by banning groups and debates where they might be discussed. Student unions have enacted 125 bans; university administrations have announced another 23 bans, for a total of 148. These cover everything from newspapers, songs, sports clubs or societies, speakers, and events. This extends colleges’ regulatory power into all forms of speech and expression.

The policies used to enforce these free speech restrictions include “No Platform,” which is a policy popularized by the National Union of Students (NUS) and supported by many other student unions. “No Platform” is a “blanket ban on any individual or group thought to hold far-right or extremist views” and restricts such “individuals or groups from speaking at the union.” The policy also prohibits student union officers from publically debating banned individuals or groups.

According to FSUR, “safe space” policies are also used to designate college campuses as places were “students should expect to be protected from speech they may find offensive, upsetting or judgmental.” That language echoes the “Equality and Diversity policies” that go beyond legal obligations to censor “unwelcome verbal conduct.” Apparently there’s no safe space for controversial debates on college campuses.

The numbers that FSUR reports suggest that speech in the UK is about as un-free as in the US. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an American non-profit that protects students’ freedom of speech and expression, publishes an annual survey of American college speech codes. In its 2016 report, FIRE found that 93 percent of American colleges and universities restricted speech. Both FSUR and FIRE employ a traffic light ranking system to grade schools. Universities and institutions that are hostile to free speech and expression are ranked as red, those that issue guidance with “regard to appropriate speech and conduct” are amber, and green includes campuses with no restrictions on speech or expression. FIRE ranked 49% of American colleges as red, 44% amber, 5% green, leaving another 2% unranked. FSUR ranked 55% of UK colleges and universities as red, 35% amber, and 10% green.

Spiked notes that some topics are especially popular speech code targets, observing that “this year has seen an explosion of censorship around transgender debates.” This “transphobia” has resulted in the protesting and no-platforming of Germaine Greer, liberation feminist, who authored The Female Eunuch.

Atheists and secularists, Israel, “lad culture” (think frats), Muslim clerics, and pro-lifers were all on the chopping block as well. For example, FSUR reports that a “Safe Space officer” at the King’s College London Students’ Union forcibly shut down a speech by Israeli Defense Forces humanitarian officer Hen Mazzig in 2014.

Some speech codes are so comprehensive that the level of detail they require is almost ludicrous. At Edinburgh University, the Students’ Association analyzes “offensive” hand gestures. These include “gestures which denote disagreement or in any way indicating (sic) disagreement with a point or points being made” and “gestures which are not generally known or accepted by the (student) council.” My all-time favorite rule is also from the Edinburgh University Students’ Association Safe Space Policy: “applause is acceptable when a motion is passed only, not if a motion fails to pass.”

If you’re looking to bring your sombrero to the UK, don’t stop by the University of Birmingham. Officials might confiscate it. The same goes for American universities where “offensive” sombreros have caused controversy: Claremont McKenna College, the University of Louisville, and most recently Yale. Northumbria Students' Union Fancy Dress policy recomends when choosing your costume, “if you are in doubt, don’t wear it.”

Spiked notes that restrictions on speech often come from the students—a trend echoed in the United States as well. At Oxford, which was ranked as red by Spiked’s traffic-light system, the student-led #RhodesMustFall campaign continues to push for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the sponsor of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, because he  supported segregation and oppression of blacks while he was head of the British South Africa Company. The University’s Chancellor Lord Patten chastised students for stifling “freedom of debate,” telling them that they should “think about being educated elsewhere.” Compare the anti-Rhodes campaign to the Black Justice League’s sit-in and protest at Princeton, which drew similar attention after demanding that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs be renamed because of Wilson’s “racist legacy.”

The demands for “safe spaces” in universities are an ongoing debate that deserves attention and a response. If safe space-secluded students cannot listen to no-platformed speakers, how will they learn to respect intellectual diversity? Will speaking out against the restrictions themselves soon become no-platformed? The disturbing results of the FSUR report read like George Orwell’s 1984.

Tom Slater, who coordinated the FSUR report, points to the importance of cultivating respect for free speech:

Here’s hoping the FSUR can give students the weight of evidence they need to fight back. And here’s hoping that university authorities and academics, who have so long ignored the threat facing the academy, take a stand of their own.

Some students have spoken out against the new repressiveness. The work of FIRE and FSUR supports the countermovement that is already underway.

Image: Mouth Wide Shut by Soumydeep Paul // CC BY

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