The NUS is pro-free speech? Pull the other one

On the first day of the National Union of Students’ (NUS) conference, a motion was passed calling on the NUS to ‘open a dialogue’ with social-media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yik Yak to restrict ‘trolling’ from anonymous accounts during student election times. Aside from the pomposity of the NUS believing it will have any influence over large social-media companies, this once again shows that the NUS has no interest in freedom of speech – which is most important during the election of student representatives.

The motion was proposed to prevent attendees of the conference coming under fire from critics on social media. But the NUS is supposed to represent the interests of students, not its sabbatical officers; it is meant to be criticised and held to account. This attempt to restrict social-media discussion of NUS reps springs from the same paternalism of the No Platform policy – from the idea that students are so fragile that they need external speakers, and now even other students, to be silenced. Yet during NUS election time, if anyone’s feelings should be prioritised it is those of the electorate — they’re the ones whose rights and ability to debate should take precedence. That the NUS cannot see this shows how undemocratic it is becoming.

Another motion argued that criticism which undermines a campaign should be condemned. But this is also disingenuous – surely some campaigns deserve to be undermined, if students feel they don’t represent their views? Criticism, opposition and debate should be allowed, encouraged in fact, and students don’t need to be monitored by special ‘social-media teams’ run by NUS candidates, or worse, university authorities.

One motion that was passed would seem to suggest that the NUS does value freedom of speech. The motion called on the NUS to help protect student media from attacks on editorial freedom by students’ unions. (One need only look at what happened to the Wesleyan University student paper in the US to see why this is needed: when an opinion piece critical of Black Lives Matter was published, a vote was taken to cut the paper’s funding.)

However, unsurprisingly, the summation in favour of this motion stated that the purpose of student media during election time is simply to report candidates’ statements. So even this apparent defence of press freedom was really about circumscribing student debate. Evidently, the NUS believes that free speech is a problem, whether it’s students being critical on Yik Yak or student papers going beyond the bland reporting of what student reps think.

If you want to know what genuine free speech on campus would look like, imagine the opposite to all these motions passed at NUS conference; imagine no restrictions on the right of students to talk about politics, their representatives and what they think their unions and universities should be doing.

David Browne is a writer and a student at the University of Exeter.

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