A group of university academics have published an open letter in the Telegraph criticising their universities and unions for “stifling free speech by banning anything that causes the least offence to anyone”, which, according the academics, denies “the intellectual challenge of debating conflicting, and often unpopular views”.

[su_pullquote]80% of unis censor the free speech of their students according to Spiked magazine.[/su_pullquote]Writing in the Telegraph, the academics, led by Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent and Joanna William, education editor at Spiked magazine, suggest that the growing censorship taking place on university campuses is rife, pointing to Oriel College, Oxford, considering the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a college alumni and benefactor, as a result of his involvement in establishing the apartheid in South Africa.

They add that “because universities increasingly see fee-paying students as customers, they do not dare to stand up to the “small but vocal minority” of student activists who want to ban everything from the Sun newspaper to the historian David Starkey”.

This comes in the aftermath of the development of the Free Speech University Rankings by Spiked magazine, which seeks to chart the extent of the apparent censorship taking place on university campuses. The results showed that 80% of universities censor the free speech of students in some way.

This comes in the wake, at the end of last year, of the Union of UEA Students banning sombreros on campus after receiving complaints from some students that the hats were appropriating Mexican culture.

[su_spoiler title=”Why is it important for students to have freedom of speech?” style=”simple” icon=”chevron-circle” anchor=”Comment”]Free speech should be protected, even when we don’t agree with it. Free speech has become a touch paper subject on many university campuses across the country and has even recently been the subject of government legislation designed to stop ‘extremist ideologies’ being propagated.

What has been lost from the debate on this issue is that if we as a society decide to place importance on defending the liberal value of free speech, both at home and internationally, then we must also be willing to accept the right of all people to have this right.

If we start attaching conditions to a right it becomes a privilege. At universities in particular, to deny extremist ideologies the right to be academically scrutinised and understood is not only to do a disservice to the founding cause of universities but also to handicap ourselves in the fight against these views.

Extremism is not like a plant, you can’t lock it in a cupboard and wait for it to die. Instead you must take these views into the open, exposing them to the glare of academic rigour.

If an idea is to be considered extreme then there should be nothing to fear from tackling it head on, rather than shielding ourselves from it and pushing to the margins where it can gain traction and percolate.

Chris Roberts, News writer[/su_spoiler]

In his report Furedi stated that ‘few academics challenge censorship that emerges from students. It is important that more do, because a culture that restricts the free exchange of ideas encourages self-censorship and leaves people afraid to express their views in case they may be misinterpreted. This risks destroying the very fabric of democracy’.

‘An open and democratic society requires people to have the courage to argue against ideas they disagree with or even find offensive. At the moment there is a real risk that students are not given opportunities to engage in such debate. A generation of students is being denied the opportunity to test their opinions against the views of those they don’t agree with’.

The letter concluded by calling for vice-chancellors to take a “much stronger stance” against the forms of censorship that are becoming prevalent on university campuses across the UK, adding that “students who are offended by opposing views are perhaps not yet ready to be at university”.