Edinburgh: playing students at their own censorious game

Charlie Peters

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Topics Free Speech

It seems that the University of Edinburgh is hell-bent on attacking the freedoms of its staff and students. This month, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association took a vote on removing a student from a meeting because she raised her hands. Meanwhile, the university administration has proposed plans to monitor staff movements throughout the day. Now, it has been revealed that the university has also been spying on students involved in divestment protests.

A recent leak of the minutes from a financial managers’ meeting has revealed that the university administration is not only planning to monitor the social-media activity of student activists, but is aiming to shut down the protest entirely.

The People and Planet student group has been holding a protest against the university’s investments in fossil fuels by peacefully occupying buildings and holding demonstrations. In response, the university has singled out six of the 50 protesters for disciplinary action. The group has said ‘this is an attempt to scare people away from taking meaningful action against the university’.

Kirsty Haigh – who, ironically, previously led the campaign to ban Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ from campus – has criticised the university’s censorious behaviour, describing its actions as ‘shameful’. 

And she’s right. By disciplining protesters, the university is chilling the rights of students to voice their views.

Student environmentalists are notorious for ignoring facts and opposing views, and for rejecting all criticism. They ignore the fact that fossil fuels continue to lift people out of poverty, keep living costs low and promote industrialisation in countries that have yet to benefit from substantial economic growth. So there is some irony in the university silencing students who are often hostile to debate themselves.

But if the university really wants to challenge these protesters, it should present them with some facts. In true academic fashion, university representatives should recommend some reading to the students – Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels, by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), would be an excellent start. The protesters would learn that even if their divestment campaign turned out to be successful, it would not ‘decrease the share price of fossil-fuel companies or appreciably shrink their profits or access to capital’.

To ensure a healthy climate of discussion and unfettered debate, our universities must allow students to gather and protest against decisions they dislike. And, in turn, students must uphold the principle of free speech on campus and engage in debate without censorship or restraint.

Charlie Peters is a writer and student at the University of Edinburgh.

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Topics Free Speech