Unwrap the verbal cotton wool

January 19, 1996

You cannot say anything these days. In November last year the University of Sussex student union dropped its long-standing policy defending the absolute right to free speech. A week earlier the Queen Margaret Union of Glasgow University refused for the second time to affiliate a student society, the radical left Revolutionary Communist Students, on the grounds that the society's constitution called for free speech.

Last academic year, the president of the debating society at the University of Southampton was almost removed because he invited the British National Party to a debate . . . about free speech. The debate did not go ahead.

Most student union officers would argue that they do not disagree with free speech in principle. However, they will say - and did say in all of the above cases - that in practice freedom of speech for all, regardless of their opinions or beliefs, contravenes their union's equal opportunities policy.

What they mean by this is the rules introduced by most universities and student unions to govern language - generally racist, sexist and homophobic language. Sheffield University's personal harassment policy, for example, includes in its definition of sexual harassment "remarks, looks, attitudes, jokes, using offensive language, alluding to a person's private life with an innuendo, or . . . remarks about dress or body", lists "derogatory name-calling" and "insults about racist jokes" under racial harassment, and defines "repeated jibes in reference to personal traits or appearance" as another form of harassment.

There is a contradiction between such policies and the absolute and universal right to free speech. Regulations on offensive language are necessarily restrictions on free speech, in the sense that one is not free to say something that may offend someone else. The question is, however, does the fact that this contradiction exists mean that student unions are justified in dropping their commitment to free speech?

Equal opportunities policies were supposedly brought in to challenge prejudice. They work on the assumption that, if certain people find a certain set of ideas repellent, those ideas should be banned. The consensus was that even if student unions supported freedom of speech in general, the ideas of fascist groups were exceptional.

This argument has been repeated since in relation to a number of groups as diverse as the Islamic group Hizb-ut Tahrir, against which the National Union of Students adopted a no-platform policy in 1994, the Sun newspaper and Christian Student Action, banned by Leeds University in 1994 and 1995 respectively, and the London Church of Christ, prevented from organising in a number of London colleges last academic year. By now there have been so many "exceptions" to the general principle of free speech that it is no surprise that student unions are discarding the general principle itself.

Equal opportunities policies suggest that certain ideas are wrong and need to be challenged. But if this really were the case then they would need to provide a mechanism through which the ideas of, say, the British National Party or Hizb-ut Tahrir, can be taken up and disputed. The desire to debate important social issues is surely the reason why, in 1968, Sussex adopted the policy on free speech which it has now dropped.

A policy of censorship, by restricting the means through which prejudice can be articulated, pretends bigotry does not exist. The consequence can only be an environment in which rational debate is suppressed while irrational ideas fester. Equal opportunities policies go against the assumption that adults are able to weigh up conflicting ideas and come to a rational decision about which are right and which are wrong. When NUS, or any local union, introduces a policy of "no platform" for any individual or group, they are saying that students cannot handle certain types of ideas.

This was most clearly illustrated at Leeds University last year when Christian Student Action was banned for using homophobic language by saying that they believed homosexuality to be "unnatural and addictive". When I protested to a member of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society, which had instigated the ban, his argument was that students were naive and sheltered, and easily swayed by any point of view.

Some 18-year-olds may leave home naive and sheltered. The idea behind going away to college was always that they would not stay that way: that university was about broadening one's mind, not only in terms of education but about a range of issues. Students do not generally want to stay children for ever, and we know that growing up is not only about taking responsibility for our alcohol consumption, but for changing the world we live in. We cannot do this wrapped in cotton wool.

Jennie Bristow is a student at the University of Sussex.

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