Free speech
Campus censorship is not above debate

Campus censorship is not above debate

No More Page 3 are at the forefront of calling for censorship at the University of Nottingham, but they still refuse to debate.

This Friday, 7 March, spiked is kicking off its Down With Campus Censorship! campaign with a debate at the University of Nottingham. Here, the debate’s organiser, Nottingham student Robert Smith, reports on the perils of getting feminists to participate.

Any student who has ever organised an event on campus, particularly of the political variety, will know it is a task that requires time, effort, and a little careful diplomacy. Dealing with complaints from a local UKIP or Green Party activist, upset they weren’t invited to speak, is but one example.

However, in the course of organising a debate on campus censorship at the University of Nottingham, in partnership with spiked, I have come across three distinct obstacles: the very use of the word ‘censorship’, the association of the debate with spiked, and the lack of female representation on the panel.

The proposed title, ‘Time to end campus censorship?’, has understandably ruffled the feathers of those who don’t think censorship is taking place on campus. What they fail to realise is that – like a motion used by the Nottingham Debating Union last year, ‘This house regrets Thatcherism’ – the title is a starting point, a position which is put up on a pedestal so it can be agreed with, disagreed with, challenged, and criticised in equal measure.

From the start, my intention has been to promote an open, varied and nuanced discussion. Yes, the association of the debate with a magazine that touts a ‘no ifs, no buts’ approach to free speech may influence how the debate is framed, but numerous debates have taken place at Nottingham with less-than-neutral backing before: the Labour society hold a regular ‘Drink and Debate’ event, the Conservatives hold ‘Port and Policy’, and UoN Feminists run regular discussions on student radio.

All of these debates should be welcomed. Open discourse, even if it is backed by groups with certain agendas, is what differentiates a society like ours from those which are more secretive, corrupt and restricted. Those who disagree with the framing of the debate are welcome to come along and tell us why we’re wrong; they can even pull funny faces when Tom Slater, who will be representing spiked at the debate, is preaching the values of free speech.

The criticism of the debate’s all-male panel from feminist-leaning students is almost not worth addressing, especially as the full panel was still clearly ‘to be confirmed’. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that the debate is primarily about free speech and censorship. The priority is to have a balanced ‘pro-ban vs anti-ban’ line-up, rather than a ‘male vs female’ or ‘feminist vs anti-feminist’ one. People should be treated as absolute equals; there’s no room for ‘token’ panelists in a grown-up debate.

However, given that a campaign to ban the Sun and the Daily Star from Nottingham’s campus shops is currently under way, under the banner of the feminist No More Page 3 campaign group, I accept that an all-male panel, or one which excluded feminists altogether, would be unbalanced and ineffective. But this is precisely why I have been in contact with female and feminist speakers from the outset. A few feminist speakers, willing to argue that banning Page 3 is an essential step to gender equality and put me in my place for daring to suggest it is ‘censorship’, would be welcome. Unfortunately, those I have invited to speak have been too concerned about the wording of the title of the debate and the motivations of other associated groups to participate.

In response to my invitation, a prominent member of the national No More Page 3 campaign commented that ‘No More Page 3 would be unlikely to host or sponsor a debate about Page 3’; instead they would have preferred a ‘seminar’. It’s quite clear what a ‘seminar’ would entail. If I had wanted to stage a one-sided sermon or a call-to-arms rally I would have organised one. Instead, my intention is to host a balanced dialogue where the side making the most convincing case will come out on top.

The unwillingness of some students at Nottingham even to acknowledge that there are two sides to the campus censorship debate proves that this is a debate that needs to be had.

Robert Smith is a politics student at the University of Nottingham and comment editor of Impact. He will be chairing the debate ‘Time to end campus censorship?’ on Friday 9 March at the University of Nottingham, as part of spiked’s Down With Campus Censorship! campaign. Follow Robert on Twitter: @robertdgsmith

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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