Good intentions can still endanger free speech

THE PUBLICATION of the Free Speech University Rankings 2016 (FSUR) will have caught many eyes in Aberystwyth due to the listing of Aber as one of the top five for censorship. Student Union politics passes many by, but students are often liberal and the accusation that Aber is censoring free speech will sting. After all, universities are meant to be the places where ideas can be thoroughly debated and discussed.

The FSUR uses a traffic light system of grading various policies and actions of both the University administration and the Student Union, and for both Aber received a ‘red’ ranking. Most of Aberystwyths red actions seem to date from 2013, a time when a few high profile incidents perhaps mandated a little more caution.

The system also appears very rigid and takes a very one dimensional view of free speech – any restrictions beyond what is already illegal is marked as a negative. Nevertheless, you can see where those who compiled the rankings are coming from – to ban three newspapers because they had content some students disagreed with is censorship. Policies restricting (as far as one can with such things) the use of certain insults because they might insult a certain minority may be well intentioned but is designed to restrict freedom of expression.

Many students would argue that these policies are designed to prevent illegal behaviour, such as sexual harassment. Indeed, Lewis Donnelly, President of Aberystwyth Student Union, responded to the rankings by defending Aberystwyth’s record for safety:

“Yes – every individual has a right to freedom of speech, but any comments relating to sexism, homophobia, transphobia or racism are certainly not tolerated. The Students’ Union operates a Zero Tolerance policy to provide a safe-space for all students in the Aberystwyth community… The policies that have been passed by the student body have not been put in place to manage or restrict freedom of speech, but to continue to provide the foundations on which Aberystwyth has been known as one of the safest places in the country.”

The problem is that restriction of free speech is often a side effect of these policies. It may not be the intention, but it is often a consequence. When we approached him with questions on his study’s findings Tom Slater, the FSUR Project Coordinator, suggested that:

“Many of these policies overstep their remit and breach into censoring speech and regulating student interaction. Sexual harassment policies are prudent and necessary. Outright bans on catcalling and wolf-whistling aren’t. It’s sexual expression. I think most students can deal with someone wolf-whistling without feeling the need to call the campus cops.”

It's the same freedom of speech that allowed protests to take place in response to the closure of Pantycelyn last May. Photo Credit: Alex Tanton.

It’s the same freedom of speech that allowed protests to take place in response to the closure of Pantycelyn last May.
Photo Credit: Alex Tanton.

Beyond the censorship of speech there is also the matter of no-platforming, or banning speakers because either they ‘might’ offend someone or because a group of students simply disagrees with what they say. This is dangerous, because universities are precisely the place where such intellectual debates should be held. No-platforming assumes that you are in the right and that the other side’s ideas have no merit. This is not only arrogant, but dangerous and runs counter to the ethos of most universities.

I think that most would agree that Student Unions and university campuses should be places where people feel safe. However, there is a very real danger of creating a culture where anything that might offend someone gets shut down and silenced. This is not limited to us in Aberystwyth (63 institutions in the FSUR scored amber or red), but something that universities around the country are grappling with.

Germaine Greer was banned from speaking at a university for her views on transgender women in case it offended. Kings College London’s Action Palestine violently interrupted a talk given by an Israeli. Several university student unions have banned songs from being played on their premises because they have sexist lyrics. Universities are not places where you should insulate yourself from the world, rather your ideas should be tested against ideas of others through debate. If you occasionally get offended, well, that does sometimes happen in life.

I have nothing against banning those who would incite hatred and violence based on peoples’ race, gender or sexual orientation, or discouraging ‘lad’ culture and anti-social behaviour. However free speech is as a fundamental pillar of our way of life. We must be ever vigilant that our attempts to create an equal and fair society do not result in us squashing free and open debate, for the consequences would be very, very dangerous.