When news emerged last week that two students from the London School of Economics had been banned from wearing ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon t-shirts on a stall at the university’s freshers’ fair, it was only the most recent act of censorship carried out by students’ unions.
At the latest count, the students’ unions at six universities have banned the song ‘Blurred Lines’ from being played in their buildings. In the past few months alone, Derby University students have banned the UKIP candidate for Derbyshire police and crime commissioner from speaking in debates; the University of East Anglia has banned the showing of rugby and cricket matches sponsored by NatWest bank in the union bar; Lancaster University students’ union has banned ‘lads’ mags’ from the campus shop; and students at Essex University look set to ban Starbucks from their campus.
While a few students may challenge what has been termed a ‘war against free speech on campus’, or argue that students’ unions are not meant to be the moral arbiters of their members, what’s really noticeable is the louder clamour for more bans and increased censorship. The outgoing president of a consortium of students’ unions based in Medway in Kent has criticised the absence of a ban on political and religious extremists; and the Lancaster ban on lads’ mags has been labelled as not going nearly far enough in the perceived battle against sexism on campus.
It seems that far from revelling in the freedom of having left school and home behind, students are quick to impose new sets of restrictions upon themselves. This goes beyond socialising and shopping and impacts upon the academic realm too: research conducted at one university suggests 88 per cent of students were in favour of a requirement to make all students abide by a code of conduct and 82 per cent supported minimum attendance requirements with all the associated form-filling and register-taking. It seems that students want external monitoring and regulation because they don’t trust themselves to withstand the temptation to miss seminars or behave inappropriately in the lecture theatre. This lack of trust in themselves and each other is one reason why songs such as ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘lads’ mags’ are described as ‘dangerous’ by those campaigning for bans: one can only assume that in their fevered imaginations it is only a ‘brave’ ban on such incendiary material that prevents mass rape on campus.
University students nowadays seem to consider themselves as children in need of protection from a threatening world – with their fellow students the biggest threat of all. Whereas in the not-too-distant past, students standing for union elections would have represented a major political party and felt the need to mention (at least some) nationally significant issues, today’s potential candidates represent only themselves and campaign for things such as increased security on campus, better lighting, more CCTV cameras and greater distribution of rape alarms. The aspiration of previous generations of students to have their political views taken seriously has been replaced by campaigns to be looked after better.