The scandal of campus censorship is rarely out of the news, and with good reason.
The rise of safe spaces and speech-policing policies on campus poses a real threat to university life. Which is why everyone from the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford to the prime minister has spoken out about the creeping culture of censorship in our universities over the past few years.
This debate has, in part, been generated by the Free Speech University Rankings, which I coordinate and is published by Spiked, the magazine I work for. For the past four years, we’ve assessed the policies and actions of UK universities and students’ unions and rated them using our traffic-light system. “Red” institutions place outright bans on certain views, speakers and texts. “Amber” institutions chill free speech through excessive regulation. And “green” institutions have done none of the above.
This year, we found that a shocking 55 per cent of the institutions were ranked “red”.
But there are some academics who want to pretend that it isn’t happening. These are people who, like the intolerant protester who shouts “no platform for fascists” at Jacob Rees-Mogg, want to stick their fingers in their ears and pretend that those they disagree with – those who, in this case, are concerned about the threat to free speech on campus – will just go away.
This hit home for me recently when I read an article in Times Higher Education titled “Free Speech Rankings: misleading, ill-informed and worryingly influential”. Penned by Carl Thompson, from the University of Surrey, it took aim at our rankings, making a number of accusations about not only our methodology, but also our supposedly dubious motives. It was misleading, ill-informed and denigratory.
Let’s start with his “criticisms”.
First up, Thompson claims that most of the policies we highlight have only the potential to stifle speech. This is deeply misleading.
While we quite rightly highlight policies that chill rather than censor speech, such as the alarming number of universities that tell speakers to “avoid offending faiths”, these are clearly demarcated, as “amber” policies. Interestingly, he fails to mention the long list of “red” policies that we highlight, such as the outright bans on “transphobic” speech and the numerous restrictive policies held by students’ unions at Leeds Beckett, Newcastle, Imperial College, St Andrews, Sussex and Cardiff, to name a few.
This is a particularly glaring omission given that 55 per cent of campuses are ranked “red” and hold such policies.
Thompson also presents examples of us supposedly imposing ridiculous standards on universities or distorting incidents. All of which are plain wrong. He suggests that we claim that the University of Cambridge’s ban on downloading porn is “unduly repressive”. In truth, that policy was highlighted because it also restricts access to “other offensive material”.
Later, he suggests that our finding that 10 students’ unions have banned publications included two instances of libraries moving books by Holocaust denier David Irving. This is also factually incorrect: nine of the 10 banned tabloids, one banned a student publication.
Perhaps Thompson’s errors have something to do with the fact that he doesn’t really understand how censorship works.
At one point he suggests that we fail to demonstrate an “epidemic” of no platforming because only 12 campuses have banned speakers over the past three years. But the precise point of no platform policies – which outlaw those who are deemed to be extreme speakers, and which are held by 37 per cent of students’ unions – is that they are pre-emptive. Any speaker or group or ideology on the blacklist would never make it past stage one of winning approval. There’s no point bothering.
I’m always happy to debate our findings in good faith, and I don’t begrudge Thompson his series of factual errors.
What I do take issue with his claim that we at Spiked are targeting “liberal institutions” and that, quoting the journalist Suzanne Moore, we are “handmaidens of the alt-right”.
From our stances on free speech to immigration to abortion rights, we are as liberal as you can get. We are anti-racist, universalist and against identity politics in all its forms. Every single thing we have written about the alt-right has been excoriating.
If some academics want to carry on pretending that campus censorship exists only in Daily Mail columnists’ fever dreams, that’s their business. If they want to argue that freedom of speech should have its limits, that’s their right.
But they shouldn’t go around labelling their opponents as right-wing extremists. That’s precisely the sort of contemptible, illiberal behaviour that has made British campuses a laughing stock.