Campus censorship has reached epidemic proportions at British universities, with research indicating that nine out of ten of them now enact policies to limit free speech. What’s behind this surge in suppression?
Jacob Williams is a third-year PPE student at Oxford University. He had grown frustrated with the limitations on expression at the university after a debate on abortion was cancelled, a rugby team disbanded and the song “Blurred Lines” banned. So he put together a magazine called No Offence with Oxford resident Lulie Tanett. Their aim was to promote the discussion of controversial ideas.
“We thought [the restrictions] had got out of hand,” says Williams. “The last two or three years they’ve really been increasing. We created a discussion group, Open Oxford, and the magazine developed out of that.”
A launch of the magazine was planned for Oxford University’s Freshers’ Fair. But the university’s students’ union deemed it unsuitable for the event, citing content including a graphic description of an abortion and a celebration of colonialism. No Offence was banned over fears it could cause offence.
Sixty miles down the M40, a similarly frustrated group of students at the London School of Economics had set up a Free Speech Society. Press relations officer Connor Naylor says: “There was a general feeling that something was wrong with the campus attitude towards opinions that went against the grain, and there was a need to stand up to the issue.” Within weeks, a motion was filed to ban the anti-ban society. A decision on its future is still pending.
Campus censorship is on the rise. According to rankings released by Spiked magazine in January, nine in 10 British universities now censor or regulate free speech, an increase from the 80 per cent revealed in their 2015 findings.
The history of no platforming and safe spaces
It’s the increasing use of “no platforming” celebrity speakers that has attracted most attention. The term “no platform” was first used in the early 1970s to describe the strategy of denying public space to fascist organisations. The policy was introduced by the National Union of Students in 1974 to prevent recruitment of students by the National Front.
“Safe spaces”, areas where students are shielded from distressing or dissenting views, arose a decade earlier, in the feminist and gay liberation movements of 1960s California.
Their role changed with the rise of “intersectionality” in the 1980s. Coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the theory asserts that vulnerable groups face unique difficulties depending on their race, gender, class or sexual orientation, all of which must be addressed specifically.
The concept of the safe space expanded to encompass all manner of persecution. On today’s university campuses, the term has come to define acceptable public behaviour. The middle-aged conservatives such as Mary Whitehouse that were once the champions of banning offensive material consumed by students have been replaced by the students themselves.
Dr Cheryl Hudson, a history lecturer at Liverpool University, was one of a group of academics who signed a letter to The Telegraph expressing their concerns over the issue. “It’s flipped around in a sense,” she says. “They used to fight for racial equality and freedom and now there seems to be some kind of division between freedom and equality believers.”
Robert Sharp, communities manager at freedom of expression campaign centre English PEN, says that the very idea of universities as public spaces is now up for debate. “The free speech crowd takes it as obvious that they’re public spaces,” he says. “This has been challenged in recent years.”
The challenge, says Dennis Hayes, director of Academics for Academic Freedom, is the result of a rise in “therapeutic censorship.”
The student experience
“Now the focus is on the student experience,” says Hayes. “The idea is that going to universities is a threatening thing and that students need to be protected.
“After the Cold War, politics went into a vacuum and was looking for an enemy. The threat turned from external forces to internal emotions.”
In 1992, AIDS activist Bob Rafsky described the damage of years of government neglect to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. “I feel your pain,” responded Clinton.
His comment, says Hayes, represented a “therapeutic turn” in mentality. This focus on emotional needs and therapy has now become the principal objective of universities.
“People are redefining and pathologising normal issues and making them into mental illnesses,” he says. “Universities have abandoned the pursuit of knowledge. It’s now overlaid with the therapeutic approach. The actual classes become therapeutic.”
Students, he continues, are simply responding to their experiences of university. “If you keep handing out leaflets saying ‘do you feel anxious?’ it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Passive lecturers have left it far too late to challenge things. It’s easiest for everyone to go along with the consensus,” he adds. “Then it becomes institutionalised, with the state behind it.”
He points the Department of Education’s “Social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) programme in secondary schools”. The policy sets out a “whole school approach” to promoting emotional health and wellbeing in education. Government reports estimate that SEAL is currently being implemented in approximately 90 per cent of primary and 70 per cent of secondary schools.
The government’s Prevent counter-terrorism guidelines, which came into force at universities last September, have added a further layer of censorship. They make monitoring speaker events a legal duty for universities, and require staff to record “changes in behaviour and outlook”.
“The greatest threat to free speech”, says Sharp, “is government policy to counter extremism.” The Counter-Extremism Bill, he feels, is of particular concern. “They’re trying to criminalise non-violent speech, and have the force of the law behind [them].”
The bill adds to the effects on free speech imposed by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. Sir Ken Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions, told the University of London on 1 July that its attempt to prevent radicalisation on campus was a means to “limit speech which is not otherwise criminal”.
Toke Dahler is the union affairs officer at Leeds University Students’ Union. The university was cited by Spiked as one of the five most ban-happy in the country. Dahler says that the media has exaggerated the issue, and that the alleged victims of no-platforming are using the growing public interest for self-promotion.
He mentions the example of Germaine Greer, who cancelled a planned lecture at Cardiff University after a petition called for her to be banned to due to her “misogynistic views towards trans women”.
“Germaine Greer exploited the coverage to get a place on Newsnight,” he says. “The ban hadn’t even happened yet.”
The discussions over the limits of acceptable behaviour and speech at universities, he continues, are the result of an increasingly politicised student body.
“People are angry and marginalised because of their debt,” he says. “They engage in politics in the way they can.
“[Students] increasingly see their universities as political spaces. It’s fundamentally a way of engaging in political discourse.
The rise in fees, adds Dr Hudson, is influencing university management. “The administrations want to compete for government funding and student fees. It’s much more market-led, so they want to stop any controversies.
“The biggest change is that the threat is now coming from within the universities rather than outside it.”