UK Universities Under Fire for Free Speech Controversies

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According to online magazine Spiked, the official policies and actions of 80% of United Kingdom universities have restricted or censored free speech and freedom of expression beyond the bounds of the law.

The Free Speech University Rankings were overseen by Professor Dennis Hayes, head of the center for educational research at Derby University, and Dr. Joanna Williams, senior lecturer in higher education at Kent University. It ranks university administrations and students’ unions dedication to freedom of speech with a stoplight-based color code: green, amber, or red. Red universities have “actively censored speech and expression,” while schools with amber ratings have “chilled speech and expression through excessive regulation,” and green-rated schools have “not restricted or regulated speech or expression.”

Spiked rated five universities as taking actions to actively prevent freedom of speech: Essex University, Portsmouth, Northampton, Bath Spa, and the University of the West of England. 88% of Russell Group and 1994 Group universities have restricted these freedoms. Cambridge was given an amber rating and Oxford was in the red.

However, the ratings’ criteria has proven to be extremely controversial.

It seems that many of these actions were well-intentioned moves to discourage racism  – such as Birmingham University’s student union’s ban on sombreros and Native American costume — but others are merely attempts to avoid offending anyone, such as London South Bank University’s atheist group being asked to take down their posters.

Banning a certain event, speaker, or song will hurt a university’s grade, but so will an equality policy banning homophobic, sexist, and racist language. Therefore, many of the universities given a red rating have stated that their assessment is unfair.

Also, Spiked’s results show that it is usually student unions, and not university administrations, that enact the sort of censorship that merits an amber or red rating.

According to Bruce Galliver, president of Bath Spa students’ union:

“There is a difference between being critical of ideas and being critical of people. I don’t think any ideas are beyond criticism. But it’s offensive language directed at individuals that I’d have a problem with, and that’s what our policies are trying to protect.” Portsmouth University’s student union president Grant Clarke says that policies that defend students from racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment do not prevent people from discussing these issues, and only serves to send the message that “we don’t accept these behaviors on our campus.”

Essex University is given a green rating in some areas, but landed in the red because of policies against homophobic language and actions, which it has noted is in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. UWE prevents advertising by payday loan companies on campus, which led to their red ranking. The Bath Spa student union banned Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines,’ while the University of Swansea’s student union shut down its pole-dancing society because of its link to the sex industry.