Chris Saltmarsh argues that if you want a true indication of who is orchestrating an assault on free speech, you should look beyond Students’ Unions and instead towards university managements, the police and government

Following the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the issue of ‘free speech’ has been thrust to the top of 2015’s political agenda. The unashamedly libertarian “only-online current affairs mag”, Spiked, jumped at the opportunity to push its own agenda and published their Free Speech University Rankings in the aftermath.

Spiked, who are “not so big on eco-miserablism” but claim to be fans of liberty, economic growth and choice, examined “the policies and actions of universities and students’ unions, and ranked them using [their] traffic-light system.”

I’m sure that readers will be devastated to hear that, “The University of Sheffield and Sheffield Students’ Union collectively create an environment that chills free speech.” We got amber. It may come as a shock, however, that the University got a green light for having no actions or policies which inhibit free speech.

The Students’ Union, on the other hand, is a repressive, dictatorial environment where horrific ‘zero-tolerance on sexual harassment’ and ‘anti-sexism’ policies infringe on students’ freedoms.

Which freedoms? Those of condoning rape culture, promoting sexism and gender stereotyping. Other actions which contributed to the SU being red-lighted include banning pay-day loan adverts and joining the pro-Palestine BDS movement.

The irony here is that Spiked are obsessed with condemning Students’ Union policies, which exist to tackle the oppression of rape culture, sexism and gender-stereotyping, as illiberal, whereas they pay no attention to the oppressive behaviours of the universities against their own students.

Warwick University were given a red-light, not because of the police brutality experienced by peacefully protesting students, which their Vice-Chancellor refused to condemn, but for equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies.

City University London received a green-light despite recent video evidence of a security guard threatening to kill student journalists who were putting up posters exposing their Vice-Chancellor’s corruption.

Where is the consideration given to our own University’s decision to chain peaceful protestors into Inox Dine, creating an unnecessarily conflictual atmosphere, when they occupied the restaurant for free education last December?

Spiked have a warped view of free speech whereby active and violent repression of student voices, by the powerful, is not considered to be censorship. By contrast, they are militantly opposed to the No Platform policies of the NUS and Students’ Unions around the county, where institutions refuse to give a platform to people who promote fascist, oppressive and harmful ideas in order to maintain safe spaces and to not legitimate those ideas. This kind of no-platforming is not an assault on free speech, but a rejection of ideas and the absence of an active promotion of them.

Spiked are only concerned with preserving maximum freedom for those with existing privilege, rather than assuring liberties for groups who are oppressed and marginalised by our established systems. Their bizarre worldview condemns the rejection of fascism, but has no criticism for the powerful who use force to repress the voices of activists.

If you really want an indication of who is orchestrating an assault on free speech, look beyond Students’ Unions and instead towards university managements, the police and government.


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