Online political magazine Spiked.com has given the University of East Anglia a red ranking in the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), a significant change from the green ranking it awarded in 2015. The website surveyed all British universities and their students unions and ranked them using a traffic light system. Red universities, such as UEA, are accused of having banned and actively censored ideas on campus; amber universities have reduced free speech through intervention, and green universities have a hands-off approach to free speech. More than 90% of universities restrict free speech, according to Spiked, and have been awarded either a red or amber ranking.
According to the website, UEA and the Union of UEA Students collectively create an environment that is “hostile to free speech”. Whilst the university was awarded an amber ranking for it’s leaflet and poster policy, which restricts the distribution of leaflets that are likely to cause offence, as well as its guidelines on bullying, harassment and abuse, assault and stalking and the use of social media, it was the policies of UUEAS which resulted in the institution’s overall ranking to red.
Spiked has listed many recent UUEAS policies to justify its judgement, including: last September’s Sombrero-gate, when a local restaurant, Pedro’s, was banned from giving out Mexican-style headwear at the Freshers Fair. Union officers confiscated the hats from students, declaring that they amounted to discriminatory or stereotypical imagery. Furthermore, last year’s decision to cancel a talk, featuring Steve Emmens – the UKIP candidate for Norwich South in 2015ís General Election – has been judged as a further infringement on free speech. This was generally a popular decision amongst the university population; more than 1,000 students signed a petition, requesting the banning of all UKIP activity from university campus.
However, a more recent petition on the UUEAS’ website to encourage the Union to “do everything it can to support free-speech and free-expression” has garnered 164 signatures since the 18th of January. Speaking to Concrete, the creator of the campaign, third year Economics and International Development student Henry Moggridge, discussed his reasons for taking such an action, stating: “I created this petition because I believe the values of the SU need to be re-considered. The agenda of protecting students from any form of offense is infringing our right to free speech and freedom of expression. And it’s happening against the will of the majority of students, because they feel unable to get their voices heard”.
He continued: “I do not want to study on a campus where the Union decides what we wear, what we talk about, what we read, what we write… Instead of allowing an open discussion about something that may cause offense, we are being told to not discuss it at all. How can young people learn from each other if they cannot have the interesting, passionate conversations that are always dancing on the edge of going too far?”
“The contrast between universities nationwide, and the policies of central government, is staggering. Is the current state of SU’s a sign of things to come for our country as a whole, as this generation ages and takes the places of existing officials? Our generation needs to learn to simply look away when they encounter something that offends them, because out in the real world reality cannot be bent to create a ‘safe space’. If the SU continues to pander to this falsehood, far from being ‘prepared for life’ many students may get quite a shock when they leave university.
Some members of the mainstream media have labelled what is seen as this widespread restriction upon free speech amongst universities as an epidemic; UEA are certainly not alone in their red award. 63 of a possible 115 institutions were granted the label, many of which are other UK Top 50 or Russell Group universities, including: Birmingham, Bath, Manchester, Oxford, and Cardiff. The only of the Guardian Top 50 Universities to be awarded a green ranking were the University of Southampton and Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University.
Speaking exclusively to Concrete, UUEAS Welfare Officer, Jo Swo discussed the Union’s official response to the Spiked Magazine rating. She described it as “interesting” that the university gained an amber rating and the Union red, and suggested this was due to existing policies intended to prevent harassment and bullying on campus. She claimed that “Spiked have got it confused: there’s freedom of speech, that is, freedom to say what you like without being arrested by the government, and there’s freedom to be a dick”.
“As university student bodies expand, you’ve got to realise that you can’t use the same language that was acceptable in the sixties and the eighties. We’ve evolved to the point where we recognise that as abusive and we have to prioritise protecting our students.”
In response to the website’s description of UEA as an institution that “banned and actively censored ideas” and is “hostile to free speech”, Swo claimed that: “Spiked thrives off its vagueness… you need context in these situations and that’s obviously why Spiked isn’t a credible source. For example, The Sun and the Daily Mail are xenophobic, trans-phobic, homophobic and damaging and they aren’t even written freely. They’re bought by the right. I think students just didn’t want that xenophobic shit on campus”. Swo also stated that she was: “very comfortable that we got a red rating if it was because of hockey. I’m proud of that”.
“You could say that because you’re not allowing me to stalk women, you’re limiting my freedom of movement. We’re protecting students because your behaviour is unacceptable. You can’t say ‘these lists of things’ because you can’t contribute to structural oppression and discrimination on campus. We won’t let you contribute to that oppressive side of society. Why do you want to say these things in the first place? My priority is to protect underrepresented students. The reason why this issue gets so much focus is that the people who are concerned about their freedom of speech are the ones who are privileged.”
“You are able to discuss and talk about this. You can come to Union Council. The Union isn’t stamping down on your rights and coming after you with pitchforks accusing people. It’s the same as if you harass someone in one of our venues – we’re going to kick you out. You just need to understand the rules.”
“The broader picture is: we need to create a better, more equal society and protecting oppressed groups does that. It’s these people who are upset about free speech who aren’t going through the democratic process. They aren’t coming to council, they’re going on Yik Yak, and they’re pretending to have rallies in the square. But they aren’t actually doing anything. I would encourage them to get involved – we aren’t oppressing your voice.”
“I would say it’s difficult to get everyone’s voice to be heard. The more political route can be really inaccessible. The Union is working on making politics more accessible and we’re open to hearing any ideas from all students but we have to maintain the democratic structures that we have in place.”