There’s an irony to student life today, and it doesn’t just come from those taking degrees in stand-up comedy. Speak to most students and they’ll claim to be all for free speech. Yet at the same time, student unions are more ban-happy than ever before.
Of course, universities have rarely really been bastions of liberty, tolerance or free expression; student unions no-platforming speakers with contentious views has a long and ignoble history. But recently, this urge to censor anything considered offensive to the sensibilities of elected union officials has stepped up a gear, and bans on everything from newspapers and pop songs to posters and bottled water have been implemented at universities throughout the UK.
Despite students paying lip service to the idea of free speech, there have been few serious challenges to this censor-happy climate – until now. This week, spiked is launching a campaign against campus censorship in all its forms. At a time when there appears to be a great deal of confusion over what free speech means and why it is important, spiked will be uncompromising in calling out bans and challenging censorship. spiked will expose attacks on free speech that come from student unions, institutional managers and campaigning feminists alike.
This campaign is necessary because, although many students claim to support free speech, this often only goes as far as views they agree with; anything that can be labelled ‘a bit rapey’, or deemed to be ‘objectifying women’, or ‘offensive to Muslims’, is seemingly fair game for censorship. Others argue that the imposition of bans isn’t a free-speech issue: students involved in campaigns such as No More Page 3 and Lose the Lads Mags argue that removing papers and magazines from university shops is not censorship as the Sun can still be bought off-campus, just as students can listen to ‘Blurred Lines’ in their bedrooms. (The regret that what students get up to in private can’t be controlled is almost audible.) But, clearly, banning songs from being played in the union bar is censorship, just as preventing people buying certain newspapers in the university shop is a free-speech issue. Such bans go beyond simply sending a message of moral condemnation; students’ choices are actively limited and their behaviour on campus restricted.
Perhaps more worrying is that some students assume that censorship is necessary to protect free speech. Often this argument is made by the bright, confident and articulate young female campaigners who argue that images of topless models in newspapers or on magazine covers objectify women and rob them of a voice in public debates. According to campaigners, banning topless models in newspapers will give women the confidence to speak out and enable them to exercise their free speech. This reveals the fundamental confusion that exists about what free speech actually means. Censoring particular ideas can’t possibly promote more free speech for others; it simply restricts the terrain of discussion for everyone.