Free Speech Rankings find restrictions at 80 per cent of universities

A new study has found restrictions on freedom of expression at four out of five UK universities

February 2, 2015

Across 115 higher education institutions included in the first ever Free Speech University Rankings, produced by the online magazine Spiked, 135 bans were instituted or upheld over the past three years.

Of these, 32 were bans on newspapers imposed by students’ unions – 26 of which involved the Sun and the Daily Star as part of the No More Page 3 campaign.

The controversial Robin Thicke song Blurred Lines, which has faced accusations of sexism, was banned by 21 unions.

Only 23 institutions were given an overall “green” ranking in the rankings – meaning that they did not impose any bans beyond legislative requirements, and did not have any regulations that were judged to chill freedom of expression.

The top performers included the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, the University of Winchester, the University of Buckingham and London Metropolitan University. Alongside them were Liverpool Hope University, the University of Sunderland and Southampton Solent University.

A total of 47 institutions were given a “red” rating and five were named as being particularly censorious. These were the University of Essex, Bath Spa University and the University of Northampton, plus the University of Portsmouth and the University of the West of England.

The study found that in most cases it was students’ unions that were responsible for “red” ratings. Of these, 51 per cent were rated “red”, compared with 9.5 per cent of university administrations.

Among the policies that were perceived as being restrictive were “no platform” rulings, which ban individuals or groups thought to hold far-right or extremist views. These were found in 37 per cent of students’ unions.

Eighteen per cent of unions have “safe space” policies, protecting students from material deemed offensive, and more than two-thirds of these were judged to place significant restrictions on freedom of speech.

Codes of practice designed to uphold free speech were felt by Spiked to actually restrict it in 31 per cent of cases, while for anti-bullying policies the result was 48 per cent.

“If students and academics can’t say the unsayable and think the unthinkable, universities quickly lose their purpose,” said Tom Slater, the coordinator of the rankings. “How can you pursue knowledge if you can’t test all ideas and explore them?”

Pro-Israel and pro-life groups were also targeted by bans – as was a Nietzsche reading group, outlawed by University College London Union on the grounds that it promoted fascism and racism.

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Essex is spearheading the fight for academic freedom, leading the campaign against new counter-terrorism legislation that would have a chilling effect on free expression within the law at our universities. It is absurd that we should be “red” rated on the sole basis that we issue guidance to our community about avoiding homophobic behaviour which might constitute harassment under the Equality Act 2010. We make no apology for offering advice on where free expression might be considered unlawful. In doing so, we are reinforcing an environment in which lawful ideas, however contentious they might be, can be expressed freely and openly. As one of the most politically active UK universities, we understand the passion that helps enliven debates on our campuses. We also know that by promoting rational argument based upon sound evidence, we equip our students with the research mindset to be active citizens after graduation and the skills to reach their own conclusions on the validity of judgements made in league tables. Bryn Morris Registrar & Secretary University of Essex
It would be good to learn why no one in Oxford, or in the Campaign for the Defence of UK universities, is ready to challenge the election of Sir richard Trainor, the first head of an Oxbridge College to have tried to sack over 300 teaching staff in his previous job. Treble whitewash all round?

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