A new report has found that free speech is facing a growing threat at British universities, with more than half of campuses imposing restrictions on various types of expression.
Speakers, pressure groups, types of behaviour, songs and even hand gestures have been banned on some 55 per cent of campuses last year, up from 41 per cent in 2014, according to the Down With Campus Censorship Campaign by Spiked magazine.
The elite Russell Group universities showed the highest levels of intolerance, with the London School of Economics coming out on top for bans, according to the report, published earlier this month.
Tom Slater, who compiled the list, believes that campus censorship has reached a pandemic level. “Stories of edgy speakers being no-platformed, of more and more campuses being smothered by safe spaces, have hit headlines in the past year. But our findings reveal that campus censorship has become more entrenched than anyone could have imagined,” he said.
“Bureaucratic policies, held by universities and students’ unions, are creeping into every corner of students’ academic and social lives — from vetting external speakers to regulating how students may address one another in the union bar.”
Although the report doesn’t include any arts universities “as to keep the survey specific”, Artefact have checked out how UAL would rank were it included.
The survey is a ‘traffic light’ rating system that ranks a university either red, amber or green based on “the actions and policies of universities and students’ unions”.
“Actions” include the banning of newspapers and controversial speakers or the ‘expulsion of students on the grounds of their controversial views or statements.’
“Policies” that are assessed include (but are not limited to) Free Speech and External Speaker policies, No Platform policies and Safe Space Policies.
Although there’s only one example of an action that could potentially constitute a red ranking on the traffic light system, it’s a pretty major one.
Last year there was an occupation of the Central St Martins reception space over the decision to scrap 580 places on foundation degrees.
The university responded by taking 15 of its own students to court and winning an injunction that banned them from occupational protest on campus indefinitely.
Among those named in the injunction was Shelly Asquith, former president of the UAL students’ union who said that “it’s outrageous that students exercising their traditional democratic right to protest have been persecuted in this way.”
Vice-Chancellor Nigel Carrington said the injunction was a “last resort” following nearly four weeks of failed negotiations with the students.
Speaking to Ana Oppenhein, SUARTS Campaigns Officer, she told Artefact the union “condemned the legal action that was taken against students participating in the occupation”.
The occupation was however, illegal, so although a drastic action from the university, UAL gets a green rating on the Spiked scale.
Regarding UAL policy that goes against the notion of free speech, there isn’t much to be found. We don’t have the Safe Space or No Platform policies that surround current discourse.
UAL’s Freedom of Speech Code of Practice states that “The Court of Governors of the University requires all members of staff and students of the University to tolerate and protect the expression of opinions within the law, whether or not these opinions are repugnant to them”.
However there is no specific reference to controversial speakers, which would suggest an open platform for anyone to voice their opinions or hold a debate without fear of being chastised.
The university’s Freedom of Speech policy does have one clause that could potentially be interpreted as impairing freedom of speech, and it regards what are termed as ‘meetings’, defined as an ‘organised meeting, gathering or similar activity’.
It requires that anyone organising a ‘meeting’ is required to “inform the University Secretary and Registrar before any arrangements are made” in case “the maintenance of freedom of speech or of related general good order cannot reasonably be assumed” which may result in “the meeting not take place”.
Essentially if you strike, protest or occupy a building without telling the University first, they’ll try and shut it down. However the clause would only be enacted “exceptionally and only after consultation”.
The policy does also state that anyone who “wishes to organise a meeting and who believes that this aim is being frustrated on grounds connected with the beliefs, views, policies or objectives of any individual or body may refer the case to the University Secretary and Registrar”.
Discussing the University’s “actions” further, Oppenhein told Artefact that “we have never banned an external speaker from campus”, which would reinforce a green rating for UAL.
She did however mention the government enforced Prevent Strategy, which the union are also opposed to.
The strategy was brought in last year as part of Theresa May’s Counter Terrorism and Security Act and requires universities to monitor students as potential extremists.
“We have made it clear that the Students’ Union will not comply with Prevent, and we are asking UAL to do as little as legally possible” she said.
Although Prevent is noteworthy, it’s government enforced so can’t really be classed as a university policy as such.
Spiked magazine’s approach to deciding what colour ranking a university receives is calculated by “the equivalent of the university’s or students’ union’s most severe policy”.
“Actions” are the equivalent of one third of the weight of a red or amber policy.
Only the above-mentioned clause in the Freedom of Speech policy stands out as potentially impairing a student’s ability to express themselves freely, in that a protest would have to be approved before going ahead – which seems fair enough, and there is no evidence for it having ever been enforced, even in the case of the injunction.
The injunction was the only example of an “Action” at all, yet even if it was fairly severe to take our own students to court over a protest, they were technically breaking the law.
According to the Spiked rating system, so long as a university “places no restrictions on free speech and expression – other than where such speech or expression is unlawful” they get a green rating.
Overall – despite some discrepancies – the university and its many campuses appear to be a good place to be for free expression – just ask the guy who hosted a one man protest against Starbucks.
Speaking to Artefact magazine, a spokesperson for UAL commented: “freedom of speech and expression are at the heart of UAL’s values of social justice.”
Featured image by Veronica_sawyer via Flickr CC