Education

Freedom of speech at university is not under threat

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BBC Freedom of Information Request has revealed that since 2010, there have been just six occasions where universities have cancelled speakers as a result of student complaints, only ten student complaints about course content and no instances of books being removed or banned from university libraries. Free speech at universities is not under threat.

These findings are encouraging, and they certainly imply that general impressions of universities as palaces of censorship are unfounded. Indeed, impressions of students (often perpetuated by mainstream media) as ‘snowflakes’ unable to listen to opinions with which they do not agree are widespread, and some of the outcry is particularly ludicrous.

The Telegraph’s piece on ‘snowflake’ students last June seems to express shock that over two thirds of students believe that talks by Holocaust deniers should not be allowed to take place, forgetting, it seems, that Holocaust denial is actually illegal in more than ten countries.

I could go on, but it is fair to say that perceptions of universities as strongholds of single-mindedness are very much a caricature – a manipulation of things as they actually are.

But caricatures do often have some basis in reality. For example, although speakers from only six organisations are officially deemed not welcome by the NUS, and there have been just sixteen official complaints about speakers in UK universities since 2010, I was recently a student, and can remember the debates that raged over certain speakers coming to speak at my university’s union. 

In my first year, there was a referendum over whether Julian Assange would be allowed to speak at the union. 77% of students voted to allow him to speak. In 2016, there was a row over potentially no-platforming the gay rights’ activist Peter Tatchell. The then LGBT representative for the NUS, Fran Cowling, refused to share a platform with him, calling him “racist and transphobic” – an accusation partly based on him signing an open letter against no-platforming. In the end, he was allowed to speak at Canterbury Christ Church University and did so. 

Again in 2016, there were protests against Nick Lowles, director of Hope Not Hate, who had previously made comments calling on far-left groups to do more to condemn grooming gangs and islamist extremism. He was accused by some of holding Islamophobic views, but was never actually no-platformed.

Each of these instances does indicate that, in some ways, there is no smoke without fire.  There are undoubtedly sections of the student population which hold views concurrent with the exaggerated media portrayal of students in general.  But in each of the instances, the pressure exerted to no-platform each of these individuals was outweighed by the opinions of those who believed that these people should be allowed to speak.

But while large sections of student populations may have opposed these proposals to no-platform, it should be noted that some very powerful and loud voices were calling for the banning of each of the speakers. And that is something that strikes a chord with my personal experience of university. 

At the last elections for Cambridge students’ union positions, the vote went a different way to the predictions of the main student paper, Varsity. In an opinion piece following the election results, columnist Louis Ashworth described the outcomes as driven by the “disillusioned” and in this way portrayed the opinion of the majority of student voters as somehow against the grain. While Varsity’s favourite was actually their own news editor, Siyang Wei (temporarily suspended for the purposes of their campaign), it was clear to me even from quiet murmurings that although the loudest voices shouted in favour of the far-left Wei, there were many other, less-dominant voices that felt alienated by the favoured campaign.

And it is these louder voices that often dominate student media and student politics. It makes sense that they would. And while these voices often say and do a lot of good, they sometimes purport to be a mouthpiece and a representative figure for all students, when they really are not. And although I never felt censored in terms of what I could say within my university environment, I would argue that there is a culture where some opinions are more equal than others. 

That is to say, although all opinions may be granted an equal platform for sharing, there are certain structures in place where the bearers of particular opinions feel that they have the right to shame other opinions into a relative silence. 

But this silence is what manifests itself in reality. It is the calm and steady backdrop along which all the media furores take place. People are not no-platformed on a regular basis because the vast majority of students feel that no-platforming should be reserved for egregious cases (such as Holocaust deniers) who do nothing but promote hatred. And the vast majority of potential speakers are not such people. 

Most students recognise it, even if their voices are not the ones we always hear. So these new findings are welcome because they distinguish fact from fiction. They indicate that many news outlets are running sensationalist stories and misrepresenting students in general at the expense of statistics which suggest a silent and non-censoring majority.

So while we should not forget about those students who wish to shut down other opinions than their own, we should start to think more about a majority which is always solid, but mostly silent, and give them the recognition that they need.   

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