SU President Yael Shafritz has hit back at a freedom of speech survey of all British universities which said Sheffield Students’ Union “has banned and actively censored ideas on campus”.
But Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings lauded the University as an institution which “has a hands-off approach and places no restrictions on speech”.
Spiked is an internet magazine focusing on issues of freedom and state control. Last month they ranked all British universities and students’ unions on their stance on free speech via a traffic-light system.
But Shafritz questioned the logic behind the Union’s ‘red’ ranking. She said: “Spiked’s perspective on free speech is based on the assumption that everyone in the world is on an equal footing to start with.
“They seem to care about already privileged people’s rights yet many people are limited by oppression, marginalisation and bullying which means that they don’t have free speech to start with”.
Students’ Union Philosophy Councillor Christy McMorrow said: “If anything, the University is more restrictive on freedom of speech than the Union. The heavy-handed reaction to the occupation of Inox Dine is just one of the many examples of the University clamping down on free speech”.
In December last year protestors occupied the University owned restaurant on the fifth floor of the Students’ Union building. Security instigated a lockdown of Inox Dine, barring the door with a lock and chain.
In Spiked’s nationwide survey, the publication highlighted the Union’s boycott of the Sun newspaper, bans on payday-loans adverts and anything deemed to be condoning ‘rape culture’, as examples of restrictions on free speech.
In October last year, the Union barred prominent feminist author Julie Bindel from speaking at the SU. Her proposed talk was cancelled on the basis of alleged trans and bi-phobic remarks. At the time, Bindel reacted by criticising the “petty censorious policies” that ensured “a babyish climate at British universities”.
President Shafritz defended the Union’s stance: “we have an LGBT friendly policy which aims to ensure the Union is a safe space with no platform for transphobic speakers.
“As an LGBT student, I think it is vital that we have this policy. The Spiked survey seems to suggest that people should have the right to be bigoted and oppressive”.
Backing Shafritz, SU Women’s Officer Miriam Miller said “everyone has the right to free speech but that right doesn’t come without its own set of responsibilities. Free speech means you’re not going to be put in prison, tortured or executed for saying what you want to say. We support the right for people to whatever they want to say, but we don’t necessarily give them the opportunity to say it here at the Students’ Union”.
Second year Philosophy student Josh Berlyne said the real restriction of free speech was in the University’s reaction to student protestors. He said “We were told that it was against University policy to stand on the concourse with a cardboard cut of [Vice-Chancellor] Sir Keith Burnett. How is that not a restriction on freedom of speech?”
Dylan Underhill, third year Philosophy and Politics student said “we have a paradox – we are asked to be tolerant of the intolerant”.
Robin Wilde, second year Journalism student said “it’s a little bit rich for Spiked to be going on about free speech given that they originated as a mouthpiece for the Revolutionary Communist party.”
The University declined to comment on the survey.
The survey comes after allegations of restrictions on the right of students to protest on campus. In December, Warwick students accused the police of using excessive force after a Taser was pulled on students at a sit-in free education. Earlier this month, a security guard at City University London was caught on camera threatening to “kill” one of the student protestors.
Despite these accusations the Spiked survey does not appear to recognise hostility towards protestors as an affront on freedom of speech. Although the University of Warwick gets an ‘amber’ rating, the only reason given for this is due to the university “restricting material which is likely to cause offence”. City University London was given a ‘green’ rating to reward their “hands-off approach to free speech”.
Despite the survey, Shafritz said there would be no change in Union policy. “Our students voted for these policies. Why would we listen to people who aren’t at our University, clearly haven’t done good research and are basing it on narrow assumptions? The policies we currently have are well aligned with our values”.