How campus censorship neuters student radicalism

By banning things they disagree with, students are sealing themselves off from the world, not changing it.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the University of Liverpool as part of spiked’s ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’ campaign.

In the brief time I have I want to address a few central questions which have been coming up over the course of the campaign so far. Why should we be so vigilant against campus censorship? Why are we at spiked making such a fuss about it? Why, when there are so many things to protest about and campaign on, should indivisible free speech be upheld above all else?

In recent years, censorship has laid siege to British campus life. A few years ago, the National Union of Students’ longstanding No Platform policy, which bans extremists from speaking at campus debates, was the most prominent means through which student unions worked to restrict certain ideas spreading on campus. And, in several cases, the enforcement of the policy sparked controversy.

In many ways, that discussion has died down: many universities have long-since refused to enforce it. However, the logic of No Platform – that rather than being allowed to engage with dodgy ideas freely, students should be sealed off from them – has permeated a slew of new campaigns and bans. The most notable of these in recent years have been the widespread banning of the pop song ‘Blurred Lines’, and the No More Page 3 campaign, which seeks to ban tabloids such as the Sun and the Daily Star due to their supposedly sexist content.

All of these bans, policies and campaigns, from No Platform through to No More Page 3, are pushed forward in an attempt to address society’s ills; to push for a more tolerant and progressive society. Campaigners claim that these ideas, these speakers, these – in Page 3’s case – bare breasts are holding students back; they are, in the minds of student radicals, polluting university debate and breeding intolerance and oppression.

But what the campaigners calling for these bans fail to realise is that anything which attempts to restrict the rights of students to access ideas, publications and even songs as they please is the opposite of tolerance and radical change. Hiding dodgy ideas from view is not only ineffective at tackling and defeating them, but doing so actively restricts the potential of students to change society radically. Whether you want to call it a ban, a boycott, or just plain censorship, any such restriction precludes the open, unfettered discussion necessary to truly uproot, debate and demolish things in society we seek to change.

Free speech is a crucial liberty for students in two ways. Firstly, it is crucial academically: university should be a place in which even the most offensive ideas are constantly debated and contested – not hidden from view. And secondly, free speech is vital to what emanates out of this spirit of academic inquiry: radical political change. Only through unfettered free speech can a university truly be a laboratory for new and radical ideas.

In the 1960s, university students fought to be taken seriously as thinkers and political beings. They fought for this against university management who, fearful of the influence of communism and the emerging counter-culture, fiercely restricted the ability of students to think for themselves and to organise politically. At the University of California, Berkeley, students toppled the censorship of their university by protesting under the banner of the Free Speech Movement. Why? Because they recognised that an end to campus censorship would liberate them – academically and politically. For them, establishing free speech for all students was the bedrock liberty from which they could begin to enact real social change.

Today, student unions and student radicals, shrinking in relevance and lacking any real connection with the student body, have shied away from truly radical politics. Instead, they’ve taken on the role of the worrisome, commie-bashing university manager. Today, in banning ‘Blurred Lines’, in banning the Sun, in saying far-right nutcases can’t come to campus and air their views, they, like the killjoy professors of the 1960s, are saying that students are too vulnerable, too easily led, to be exposed to dangerous, offensive or non-conformist ideas.

In the process, student representatives today are actively restricting the possibility for radical political change. Rather than embracing their right to free speech and seeking to exercise it in order to change society at large, students today are too busy sealing themselves off from the big bad world.

The censorship we’ve been seeing at UK universities is, at its core, an affront to students. Each campaign undermines students’ role as intellectuals and political beings, and insists they be protected like impressionable children. All by small coteries of student campaigners and union officials who seem to have somehow managed to rise above the pig ignorance of their peers.

It is for these reasons that campus censorship must be resisted at every turn. Only by putting free speech at the centre of campus life can students get on with the job of broadening their minds, challenging backwards ideas and changing society for the better.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked and coordinator of the ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’ campaign. Find out how you can get involved here.

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