Last week proved to be a very important week in relation to freedom of speech and censorship. First there was the revelation that universities may be made exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests; then Spiked.com released its free speech university rankings, giving UEA a red (compared to last year’s green); and Friday was the deadline for the university to tell the Higher Education Funding Council how they intend to comply with the government’s Prevent strategy, which aims to cut down on radicalisation of students but has been accused of restricting free speech. The timing of these news stories paints a very damning picture of censorship at universities.
It is vital that universities remain subject to FOI requests. Students pay £9,000 in tuition a year to attend these institutions and it is only right that they are forced to release information related to students’ time spent studying there. Further, universities are public bodies that produce thousands of research papers every year: their findings should be able to be meticulously scrutinised by those who wish to.
Since the start of the academic year, Concrete, has used FOI requests to report news that is in the interest of students. In issue 313, our first of the year, we were able to inform students that UEA made millions of pounds in profit from charging students for halls of residence accommodation. And in issue 317 we uncovered the disproportionate funding between schools at UEA. Without FOI requests we would have been unable to report these important stories.
Universities submitting how they plan to comply with Prevent must be treated cautiously. It is important that action should be taken to tackle extremism on campuses. However, it is equally important that moves are made to ensure that such measures do not restrict freedom of speech on campus. It is therefore welcome that the university has already admitted that it is doing everything it can to try and balance these two duties so that they can meet the terms of the government’s anti-extremism strategy while ensuring that everything is done that can be done make certain universities remain a place where students can learn about the opinions of others.
The original plans to tackle extremism had advocated a ban on external university speakers who could be considered to hold extremist views. Thankfully these proposalshave now changed. Extremist speakers will be allowed to speak at universities so long as somebody with opposing views is invited to speak at the same event. These compromises are a much better proposal by the government. It is essential that intellectual academic debates be allowed to thrive in a university environment.
It was for this reason that so many were shocked when Concrete exclusively reported just before Christmas that a UEA politics student had been visited by Special Branch officers for reading Isis propaganda as part of their course reading. The student in question was studying a module entitled the Clash of Fundamentalism, which looks at competing ideologies, and would not be possible to teach properly without looking at extremist views. It is therefore paramount that the university does all in its power to ensure its compliance with the Prevent strategy does not hinder the study of this module and modules similar to it.
However, what is worrying is the fact that censorship of certain views on campus already exists. Last year, the Ukip candidate for Norwich South in the general election, Steve Emmens, was refused the right to speak at an event on campus after a petition to ban him claimed that international students may feel uncomfortable about his presence. Such moves not only reflect badly on UEA (Emmens’s ban was partially responsible for UEA’s red free speech rating) but are also against the entire ethos of higher education. In university seminars, students are welcomed to express controversial opinions to debate and therefore students should be able to cope with a speaker appearing at an event on campus and giving opinions that they do not agree with. To assume that they cannot is patronising to everyone studying here.
However, it is worth noting that there is a limit to freedom of speech. Another reason that Spiked.com gave UEA a red rating was for the union’s decision to suspend the UEA hockey club while it investigated allegations of inappropriate behaviour. Acting in a way which directly causes others to feel uncomfortable in a club or society is wrong; it is not censorship of free speech but rather merely taking the suitable action to ensure that anyone who wishes to get involved in group activity can do so.
A third reason that UEA was given such a poor rating was for the union’s decision to stop the Sun and the Star from being sold in union outlets. At the next Union Council meeting, councillors will vote on whether the union should continue to ban these publications. The vote could go either way with some councillors believing that it is right to ban these newspapers due to their lack of inclusive views, while others agree with Spiked.com and feel that such a move is to undermine free speech. I know I will certainly be hoping that the ban is lifted so students will be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to buy such publications.