Campus censorship is a big deal
spiked’s annual Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) was released last week, to the usual cacophony of irritation from those on the receiving end of a Red ranking. Chief among the perpetually ticked-off, of course, was president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Malia Bouattia.
The NUS always frets about the FSUR, because it collects in one place all the bans and regulations students’ unions inflict upon their members. Not only did Bouattia pen a ripsote to the FSUR in the Huffington Post the day before its 2017 findings came out, she also attempted another take-down in the Independent a few days later.
In the latter, Bouattia claims that she can demonstrate ‘expertly’ that the project is flawed, suggesting that what spiked doesn’t understand is that students want to extend, not suppress, free expression. Free speech ‘is universal’, she says, but it ‘is not limitless’. To extend it to everyone means ‘sacrificing some of our rights’, preventing those who would suppress some people’s free expression from having theirs. In other words, you need to ban your way to free speech.
This is pretty mind-bending logic, even if it is by now sadly familiar. It speaks volumes that the NUS and universities feel it is their right to decide who should and shouldn’t have their ‘universal rights’ suspended. What’s more, the NUS’s ban on those it deems to be fascist – under its longstanding No Platform policy – is really an expression of contempt for students, not far-right speakers.
What the NUS doesn’t understand is that allowing your opponents the right to speak doesn’t render you mute. One person speaking doesn’t prevent the other from answering. This is what is so important about free speech. Believing in free speech means trusting people to defeat backward ideas in open debate. The NUS simply doesn’t think students are up to it.
From banning discussion of transgenderism to outlawing sombreros, there’s no end to how far campus authorities will go to police the student body. Universities are supposed to be where the ideas of the future are forged. And despite what the NUS says, this nannying attitude is no storm in a teacup. Campus censorship is merely the sharp end of a growing trend in wider society to ban and silence ideas that people don’t like, and it’s spreading at a frightening rate.
spiked and students across the country are making a big deal about freedom of speech on campus because it is a big deal. University is supposed to be a place of debate and learning. If students can’t handle the clash of ideas in a place as safe and cosy as their own campus, how will they fare when they leave university?
Benedict Spence is a writer based in London.