Watch your tongue

March 8, 2018

In his criticism of Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, “Frankly, the Free Speech Rankings are misleading, ill-informed and worryingly influential” (Opinion, 22 February), Carl Thompson fails to consider what the rankings clearly show: that speech is freer off-campus than it is on.

If I organise a public meeting off-campus, I do not face committees with lengthy policies – now commonplace – that give them the authority to vet the speeches and speakers for breaches of “safe space”, and to dictate the format of the event. Commentator Peter Hitchens and Ukip MEP Bill Etheridge have both recently had to desert the campus to speak when invited, in both cases to get past censorious vetting procedures justified through a rhetoric of safety. It is perverse that universities – crucibles of ideas and debate in pursuit of truth – should be less free than the world that surrounds them.

Jim Butcher
Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences 
Canterbury Christ Church University


Tom Slater’s feeble defence of Spiked’s “Free Speech Rankings” never addresses the concerns that I raise (“No platform epidemic is not a right-wing fantasy”, Opinion, 24 February). There’s no explanation of why each year’s report is packed with incidents from previous years and no rationale for why so much of Spiked’s “evidence” actually has little to do with free speech or intellectual debate.

Similarly, Slater doesn’t contest, and so implicitly concedes, that there’s little concrete evidence of students “banning” speakers. But he says that we must assume that it’s happening, sans evidence, because many students’ unions have no platforming policies. In fact, as I’m sure Slater knows, these policies usually correspond with the Prevent strategy in prohibiting talks by the far right or Islamist extremists. Most students’ unions report never having to use these powers; reassuringly, such speakers do not generally appeal to students. For Spiked, however, lack of interest in listening to neo-Nazis and Isis recruiters constitutes censorship.

I acknowledge that no platforming policies are sometimes misapplied. Spiked is entitled to highlight such incidents. But they are quite rare. Using Spiked’s own data from recent years, it seems that at a typical UK university, students “ban” a speaker roughly once a century.

Carl Thompson
Reader in Romantic literature
University of Surrey

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