This is a big day in the fight for free speech on campus. For the past six months, spiked, with a team of student researchers and academic experts, has been researching, assessing and compiling the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) – the UK’s first-ever nationwide study of the state of free speech on campus. We have collected and analysed the policies and bans of 115 universities and students’ unions, ranking every institution using our traffic-light system – Red, Amber and Green. Now the results are in. And they don’t look good.
Published today, on our exclusive FSUR website, our research has unearthed some shocking statistics. Eighty per cent of UK universities, when the academic institution itself is combined with its students’ union, place binding restrictions on freedom of speech. Forty-one per cent of these are explicit, Red-light bans on particular ideas, parties and individuals. The remaining 39 per cent take a vague, yet in some ways more insidious approach, by placing restrictions on offensive or insulting speech: Amber-light bans.
The scale of the problem is staggering. And students’ unions are leading the way. Our research measures a university’s attitude to free speech by assessing the policies and behaviour of both the academic institution itself and its students’ union. But when assessed individually, 51 per cent of the UK’s students’ unions are ranked Red, as opposed to 9.5 per cent of university institutions. Thirty-seven per cent of SUs still clutch to No Platform policies, which ban far-right and extremist speakers from campus. But now, Safe Space polices, the new kid on the SU policy roster block, are taking the paternalistic logic of No Platform further, restricting any speech that merely has the potential to create, in the words of the University of Bristol Union, ‘unsafe or unwelcoming conditions’. The Safe Space policy of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association requires students attending union meetings to refrain from using ‘hand gestures which denote disagreement’ and to clap only when a motion is passed, not when a motion falls. If students aren’t even allowed to clap freely, then the prospects for academic life in Britain truly are bleak.