This is an edited version of a speech given at King’s College London as part of spiked’s ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’ campaign.
Student unions clamping down on free speech is nothing new. Since the passing of the NUS No Platform policy in the 1980s, which bans union affiliates from debating with members of extremist parties, a culture of banning, boycotting and plain censorship has permeated and corrupted student politics.
Today, it’s easy to be dismissive of it all, as the bans have become more and more banal and their justifications more and more flimsy. Recently, we’ve seen the University of Derby’s student union attempt to ban the entirety of UKIP on the grounds that the burble of the notoriously gaffe-prone party poses a threat to student safety. Meanwhile, the University of Cardiff’s student union keeps trying to pass a motion that would effectively outlaw ‘pro-life’ societies and demonstrations on campus.
Last year – which was dubbed ‘the year of the ban’ by the Tab – the state of affairs went from the troubling to the vaguely ridiculous, as near-enough 30 universities banned Robin Thicke’s pop smash ‘Blurred Lines’, as well as tabloid newspapers, such as the Sun and the Daily Star, as part of the national No More Page 3 campaign. These bans were argued for under the bizarre notion that they were underpinning a culture of misogyny, even sexual violence, on campus.
It’s a strange state of affairs: where once student unions wanted to protect students from the racist invective of Nick Griffin, now they want to protect you from the come-hither warblings of Mr Thicke. But as these bans have become more banal, more hysterical, the need to challenge them is all the more important. Critics of our campaign have wondered why, when there are so many things to campaign on, we should be criticising the students who are at least trying to Do Something. My position is simple: of all the supposedly dangerous ideas running rampant on university campuses at the moment, the idea that restricting what students can say, read or listen to is in any way a positive step poses the greatest threat of all to student politics, and to the very idea of the university.