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Debate – were the Union right to boycott The Sun?

No-one has the right to oppress people – Elliot Folan

Let me start this article by saying that I voted in favour of he Sun boycott, and I’m proud to have done so. And I believe that Union Council, as the representative body of the union, had the absolute right to vote this motion through. My society knew how I was going to vote, and they supported me.

So why did I support it?

Well, there are people at UEA who will argue that “freedom of speech” trumps everything. That the right to have your vile opinion printed and distributed for you trumps the feelings and rights of people who suffer oppression in society: women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people and many others.

People can read or write vile articles, if they want. But they don’t have a right to have it stocked and sold by our Union, a Union that represents the welfare of all 15,000 students at the University, not just the 30 or so people who read The Sun. People have a right to say what they want, but no-one has a right to be given a megaphone and a soapbox and to be allowed to make women feel small or mentally ill people feel afraid.

As for why I voted to stop selling The Sun, let me give you a personal reason. A few weeks ago, The Sun ran a headline with the words “1,200 killed by mental patients”. In the article they perpetuated stereotypes about people with mental illnesses, describing them as “broken people”.

I was born with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that affects my ability to speak in public, socialise with people, empathise with people and understand my own feelings. I’ve spent 19 years dealing with mental health issues, and stigma against mental illness is everywhere.

People with mental health issues are depicted in the media as violent, scary individuals who you should stay away from. People like me face that all the time – aided by The Sun. If someone founded a newspaper tomorrow that believed mentally disabled people were broken – a newspaper that printed pictures of naked women, a newspaper that went against all our values – we wouldn’t think twice about refusing to sell it.

This is our Union. It’s not Rupert Murdoch’s union. We own it. We run it. We can sell what we want. We can do what we want. We should be proud we did this.


Photo: Guardian

Banning The Sun is a step too far – Peter Sheehan

I am no fan of The Sun. It’s crass, it’s nasty and it’s misogynistic. It may yet prove to be criminal. The so-called “feature” that is Page 3 is perhaps the most egregious and notorious example of its values: a daily dose of boob to make that sure it remains Britain’s most popular newspaper. And that says as much about society as it does about the paper. That such material is degrading to women should be obvious to all. But what to do about it?

I have certain sympathy with Union Council’s decision to ban The Sun from Union-run shops. Yet I do not think that they were right to do so. We have to be very careful about outlawing something on the grounds that we find it offensive. I find The Sun offensive, as I do The Daily Mail. Granted, the latter does not publish soft porn, but its attitude towards women, among other social groups, is no less reprehensible. So do we ban The Daily Mail too?

It is tempting to take a stand on any number of issues, but Union Council would do well to allow students to make up their own mind about what they do and do not read. In my case, that indeed extends to not reading The Sun; but dislike it though I do, I must respect the decision of those who choose otherwise.

While the Union is there to represent its members, it should beware enforcing its own morality on an increasingly alienated campus. To ban KitKats is one thing, but to ban a newspaper is to ban an idea. It sets the Union on an illiberal path and overlooks the fact that one must sometimes accept offence in the near term in order to preserve the higher principle of personal freedom.

Finally, the Union is in danger of becoming predictable. Any product deemed incompatible with Union policy is thrown out. Each boycott, taken in isolation, may be grounded in good reason and principle, but the wider picture is of an organisation with only one idea. And it’s beginning to look old hat. Campaigning needs to be dynamic, else people rapidly lose interest.

That a précis of Union policies published last year included a “foreign policy” section says volumes about the extent to which it has become distracted from its principle purpose: running services for UEA students and lobbying the university on our behalf.

If the Union is serious about increasing involvement in its politics and its campaigns, it needs to ditch the grandstanding and reconnect with issues that matter to students. Banning The Sun does nothing to rekindle this connection. Instead, it has served only to widen the divide between student and Union. Taking a stand the Union most certainly is, but this is a step too far.


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October 2021
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