The fresher’s guide to free speech on campus

Shaun Sharkey

Topics Politics

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Congratulations to all students who, having opened your A-level results today, now know you will be going to university. It will be a chance to broaden your horizons, expand your minds and, of course, have fun. Or at least it ought to be, but with a growing climate of censorship on campus, much of university life is no laughing matter.

For the past two years, spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings has looked at 115 UK universities and assessed each institution’s approach to free speech. Last year’s results showed that 90 per cent of universities and students’ unions censor speech – a rise of 10 per cent on our 2015 findings. So, to save red faces during freshers’ week, and to get you up to speed on what to expect at university, we’ve put together a list of the top seven things you can’t do at UK universities:

1) Enjoy lively debate

Universities have taken it upon themselves to protect their students’ feelings by banning supposedly offensive or controversial speakers. In the past two years, the University of Warwick banned secularist Maryam Namazie; Cardiff University attempted to stop feminist Germaine Greer from speaking; and spiked’s own editor Brendan O’Neill was prevented from speaking at the University of Oxford.

2) Throw hats

Yes, throwing your hat in the air is prohibited at some universities. No longer will finalists at the University of East Anglia be able to frisbee their mortarboard into the air. After a couple of injuries, the university deemed hat throwing an ‘unacceptable risk’ and banned it.

3) Raise a hand

Continuing the assault on all forms of kinetic movement, the University of Edinburgh was embroiled in a controversy over a raised hand. Student Imogen Wilson was accused of violating a Safe Space by the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA). Wilson, who was the vice president of academic affairs at EUSA, was accused of ‘failing’ disabled students by not responding to an open letter. In flagrant disregard for EUSA’s Safe Space policy, this caused her to ‘instinctively’ raise her hand in disagreement, after which a complaint was made.

4) Be an atheist

Back in 2014, London South Bank University’s atheist society released a poster depicting God, in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, as a flying spaghetti monster. The poster, put up during freshers’ fair, was removed by students’ union officials on the grounds it was ‘religiously offensive.’

5) Clap

What could be more disagreeable than clapping? The National Union of Students (NUS) women’s conference was asked to replace clapping with jazz hands. Unlike clapping, jazz hands, NUS officials said, are conducive to an ‘inclusive atmosphere’ and do not trigger anxiety.

6) Wear a sombrero

A Mexican restaurant was prevented from distributing sombreros by – you guessed it – the University of East Anglia. UEA argued that the sombreros were not only culturally appropriating Mexican culture; they also perpetuated racist stereotypes. The hats were banned from campus.

7) Make jokes

A much vaunted element of university life is playing sports. And, with this, comes a host of comradely activities – such as partying and suffering to-the-bone ridicule. That is, unless you go the London School of Economics. LSE banned its rugby club in 2014 because it promoted a ‘negative culture’ through, among other things, a leaflet featuring crude jokes.

If you’re shocked by all of the above, good. Some of the most insidious attacks on free speech today are happening on university campuses. But all is not lost. spiked is serious about fighting for free speech and, if you are, too, join our fightback against campus censorship and take a stand for free speech at your university.

Shaun Sharkey is a spiked intern.

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

Topics Politics


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