94% of UK Universities Restrict Free Speech

THE censoring of free speech is rampant across the UK, with nine out of ten universities curbing free speech on university campuses. This is according to the 2017 Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), published by the online magazine Spiked.

The university rankings, described as ‘vile’ by the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK, assesses 115 universities. It examines the bans and policies universities and students unions utilise to stifle free speech on campus. The universities are then ranked by way of a traffic light system.

According to the rankings, 63.5% of institutions are marked ‘Red’, meaning that significant restrictions are placed on speech through “the banning [of] particular speakers, materials and ideas”. Spiked, in the preamble to the rankings describes these universities as “hostile to free speech and free expression, mandating explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words”.

In particular, two issues stand out as a major concern; the first is related to clampdowns on discussion of religion and the second are clampdowns on debate about transgenderism. Tom Slater, Deputy Editor of Spiked and FSUR Coordinator commented: “At some of Britain’s most prestigious institutions - once interested in probing perceived wisdom and in pursuing truth, the oldest and newest orthodoxies in the book are being ring-fenced from criticism”.

The source of censorship varies however, with restrictive policies emanating from either university administrations or student unions, or both. The magazine criticises the widespread censorship by student unions, however what’s most striking is how fast university administrations are catching up.

While student unions are still more censorious, the 2o17 rankings detail that 23.5% of university administrations engage in censorship - up 15% since last year alone.

30.5% of institutions included in the rankings scored an Amber rating. Overall, 94% of universities are considered to have placed restrictions on free speech, leaving just 6% having achieved a green score. The magazine notes a significant increase in censorship over the past three years; in 2015 just 40% of universities were ranked red.

Among universities considered restrictive to free speech, there were 129 bans. Of these, 21 institutions banned speakers, 20 banned newspapers and nine have banned “offensive fancy dress”. 44% of higher education institutions maintained “no platform” policies and policies “banning fascist, racist and Islamist groups”. 43% had censorious “religion and belief” policies, and 34% had similarly restrictive “transgender” policies, the magazine said.

Overall, 94% of universities are considered to have placed restrictions on free speech.

At Newcastle University there is a ban on dressing up as Caitlyn Jenner, while London South Bank University has banned “blasphemy”. The most restrictive included four Russell Group universities, with Swansea University joining the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh, Newcastle University and Cardiff University.

Slater, writing in conjunction with the rankings, stated that; “collectively, students’ unions and universities are presiding over byzantine, speech-policing bureaucracies that undermine the university’s very moral mission. And the excesses of SU censorship are at the very least enabled by university managers.”

Spiked focuses on politics, culture and society from the tradition of humanism and the “anti-Stalinist left”. It was founded in 2000 after its predecessor, Living Marxism, went bankrupt following the loss of a libel case brought against it by the broadcasting corporation ITN. At the time the case brought significant attention to itself, with world renowned academic Noam Chomsky defending the magazine in an interview with the Guardian, saying that the LM was right in its defence of an article it published about ITN’s coverage of the Bosnian war. However, the magazine lost the case and discontinued its publishing.

The 2017 FSUR was funded by The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, who “fund political campaigns in the UK to promote democratic reform, civil liberties and social justice”, as well as the organisation, Academics for Academic Freedom.

“If there is an upside to all this, says Slater, “it is the response from students themselves, who have begun to realise just how much these institutions hold them in contempt”. Coinciding with the apparent increase in curbing of free speech, “campus campaigns to overturn bans, stunts to draw attention to SU censorship, and a new movement to disaffiliate students’ unions from the National Union of Students” have begun to form and grow. This has been “heartwarming” according to the Deputy Editor of Spiked.