Freedom for the freshers!

Why spiked is waging a war of words on the campus thought police.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Deputy Editor

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Topics Free Speech

Freshers’ week: for this generation of increasingly coddled, stay-at-home young people, it provides a rare moment of genuine transition – a breach from hometown adolescence into something more independent, edgy, booze-addled and free. Over the next few weeks, British students up and down the country will be throwing off the parental yoke in a cyclone of skittle-bombs, misjudged hook-ups and dire SU-run club nights. Before term, reading lists and hungover introductory seminars begin, freshers’ week is an education in and of itself. And it’s one that, for most new students, is as thrilling as it is a bit awkward.

But that’s hardly the impression you’d get from the think pieces, campaigns, initiatives and students’-union burble that have been rumbling on in the run-up to freshers’ 2014. Any would-be fresher could be forgiven for thinking that the whole affair was some sort of pseudo-Satanic festival, aimed at corrupting your mind, body and soul before you’ve even unpacked your new George Asda bedspread.

A time of joyous sexual excess? Think again. Last week the publication of a new survey (picked apart devastatingly here), claiming that one-in-four female students has experienced ‘unwanted sexual advances’ while at university, marked the National Union of Students’ (NUS) return to its war on lad culture. Despite there being little beyond snobby anecdotes to indicate that peacocking rugby lads are latent predators, the NUS has established the hilariously named Lad Culture National Strategy Team – adding to the rolling out of consent workshops and bans on ‘laddy’ newspapers, magazines and even greetings cards that we’ve seen over the past year.

If, after all that fearmongering, students quite fancy a drink, don’t worry – their betters in the NUS are there to save them from themselves yet again. This year, the NUS launched its Alcohol Impact scheme to ‘create a social norm of responsible alcohol consumption by students’. It was hardly out of character. In 2009, the NUS signed up to proposed government plans to slap minimum price-tags on alcohol.

And for those students who look forward to diving into the rough-and-tumble of student politics, no luck there, either. Two weeks ago it was reported that the Dundee University Student Association (DUSA) had banned the pro-life group the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) from its freshers’ fair. Despite SPUC having appeared at the fair since 2004, the DUSA is now concerned that the group’s presence would ‘distress’ students who had had abortions. And it’s not just conservatives who are feeling the brunt of campus censors: last year, the London School of Economics (LSE) shut down an atheist society freshers’ fair stall because the members were wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the satirical ‘Jesus & Mo’ cartoons. Many campuses have ‘No Platform’ policies, too, designed to protect students from being exposed to allegedly dangerous ideas and speakers.

And when students try to ward off their post-freshers’ hangover shame by getting stuck into academic life, they will find that this arena, too, is being stifled. The clamour for ‘trigger warnings’ to be slapped on potentially upsetting texts and the rise of Safe Space policies, which work to protect students from the disheartening, heated, illusion-busting nature of academic debate, are slyly making a mockery of the core ideals of the university: to say the unsayable and think the unthinkable.

Freshers’ week has become the locus for all of the trends that are suffocating student life today. And it’s time students started kicking back. So this week, spiked is reigniting ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’, our national campaign calling for free speech on campus – with no ifs and no buts. We’ll be waging a war of words on everything from creepy consent workshops and the thought-policing programmes against student radicalisation, to the crackdown on academic freedom. Why? Because as disparate as all of these trends may seem, they speak to the same, underlying assumption – that students are too thick, too childish or too ‘vulnerable’ to drink, let alone think, for themselves.

Free speech on campus is not only about shoring up the rights of student radicals to speak their minds with impunity, or students to read, write and learn without outside intervention; it’s also about protecting the freedom of all to do, speak, catcall and party as they please. So, to students everywhere: drink, shag, read, argue and debate to your heart’s content. And if you want to help us take the fight for free speech to your campus, click here to find out how you can get involved.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked and coordinator of the ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’ campaign. Find out how you can get involved here. He is currently directing the UK’s first university ranking for free speech. To find out more, email: tom.slater@spiked-online.com

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech