Michela Wrong’s ears twitched when she realized she was being investigated by the Bristol University students’ union before she was due to give a talk there last November. The journalist and author, an Africa expert, was subjected to a background check that all speakers at the university face to see if she fit their “safe space” policy, she says.
Even her social media profiles were scrutinized. Wrong says she declined the invitation to speak in a “flash of anger.”
“This is what you call ‘being vetted,'” says Wrong, who says she encountered much censorship during six years working in Africa. “The onus is all wrong, because if you are a writer or journalist like me you get asked to talk quite a lot at universities”. The possibility of censorship therefore struck her as “bizarre.”
Universities were once seen as havens of free speech, an open space of contrasting ideas and debate resulting in a fusion of contemporary thought. Students, from the days of the 1968 student riots around the world, were supposed to represent challenges to convention and an openness to controversial points of view. But recently the tables have been turned as student groups on both sides of the Atlantic seek to stop the expression of ideas they find offensive – including on campus.
In both the UK and the United States, students tackle university administration and visitors over political correctness and intellectual open-mindedness. Clashes have ranged from campaigns to discredit feminist scholar Germaine Greer to protests against visits from iconoclastic speakers on U.S. campuses. The UK’s National Union of Students (NUS) has a “hit list” of six proscribed organizations from which no representative will be accepted in any students’ unions associated with it. The six currently on the list are: far-right, nationalist groups the British National Party (BNP), English Defence League (EDL), and National Action, and Islamist groups Al-Muhajiroun, Hizb-ut-Tahir, and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.
Today’s student population is often labelled “Generation Snowflake” by some commentators, a caricature of the young as easily offended and less resilient than previous generations.
Banning speakers whom students don’t like is called “no-platforming” (because they are denied a platform). It was the potential of being “no-platformed” that infuriated Michela Wrong. But the practice has become a symbol for student intolerance of controversial characters that wraps into debates on hate speech, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” (The Guardian).
University setting gives ‘academic credit’
“[No-platforming] is a useful tactic when dangerous speakers or known fascist speakers are invited to speak at events or may be invited to speak at events,” says 20-year-old Lucas North, a student at the University of York, who also supports no-platforming “Terfs” [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] and people with known racist views.
“Hearing an idea in a university environment … gives it academic credit and says it’s a view worth hearing. Personally I don’t view fascist views as being worth hearing,” says North. “I see them as being extremely negative to the point where we should be condemning them, not trying to battle them out with a nice polite debate, because these people aren’t nice and polite.”
Not everyone agrees: “You don’t fight intolerance by being intolerant yourself,” says Ariel Carson, a 23-year-old postgraduate student at University of the Arts London. “[The BNP, one of the groups banned] are nasty people, but that doesn’t mean you hide from them and show you’re scared. You challenge their views … I completely disagree with no-platforming.”
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In the U.S., a planned appearance at University of California, Berkley by polemical journalist and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was blocked after “violent” demonstrations by students (CNN). Likewise, libertarian scholar and author Charles Murray met protesters when he arrived at Harvard College to give a talk in September (Washington Post).
Yiannapoulos was also denied a platform in Manchester, England. Both he and feminist writer Julie Bindel were banned by the University of Manchester in 2015. Meanwhile, a lecture by Australian feminist scholar Germaine Greer, well-known in the UK for her views on transgender women that have been called “problematic,” (The Guardian) was postponed after she was accused of being “transphobic” by students at Cardiff University in Wales.
Bristol University’s students’ union voted to pass a motion to completely no-platform “Terfs”, often a derogatory term used for so-called “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (The Times), including Greer. The motion is yet to become official union policy, but the university’s chancellor came down hard on no-platforming and the creation of “safe spaces” in 2017, saying that “universities are robust enough” to “deal with a range of ideas” including those that are “absurd and even obscene.”
In the UK, the spate of no-platforming prompted Tom Slater, deputy editor of politics website Spiked, to set up a list of universities which place restrictions on speakers. This became the website Free Speech University Rankings, where Slater writes that 55 percent of the institutions were ranked ‘red’ – meaning they have banned or actively censored on campus. Slater is a strong opponent of the NUS.
A kind of answer
On April 1 2018 a new, government-approved organization starts work in the UK, charged with sorting out the problems of student life, including protection of free speech. But before the Office for Students even opens it has been controversial (The Times HE). Critics have said the “Office for State Control” would be a more fitting title for the group, warning it was “dangerous for democracy.” After author and journalist Toby Young was appointed to the new body, a petition to remove him received more than 220,000 signatures. Comments and tweets from his past were uncovered, and a subsequent report found that his appointment had been a result of political interference. Young resigned.
Chief executive Nicola Dandridge says the OfS board will make sure universities uphold free speech — or else. The Education Act 1986 enshrines free speech rights in universities, she says, and any institutions that do not comply could face sanctions or fines.
“Many, if not everyone, would acknowledge that [free speech is] a really fundamental part of university life, that people can express their opinions, as long as they’re within the law, freely and openly,” she says. “Generally universities take free speech very seriously.”
“People are quite nervous about us,” Dandridge says. “I’m very keen that we emphasise our common objectives, which is to act in the student’s best interests. How could you not want to do that?”
Former universities minister Jo Johnson defended plans to allow the OfS (The Guardian) to fine or suspend institutions that fail to protect freedom of speech on campuses, stating: “Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged.”
But nearly two-thirds of UK university students said the National Union of Students (NUS) is right to enforce its “no platform” policy and permanent bans. It’s due to add another to the list, the nationalist group Britain First (famous for being the source of a retweet by Donald Trump which was condemned by British prime minister Theresa May). Unions affiliated with the NUS are contractually obliged to also no-platform the groups.
After an administrative error led to the cancellation of his visit to the University of York, co-founder of the far-right English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, went to the campus “unofficially” and “harassed” students, says Lucas North. “You could tell if the event had gone ahead, it would not have had any academic value.” Robinson, however, said the talk was cancelled “due to threats of violence by far-left organisations and communists” (The Yorker) and that free speech in universities was “dead” (The Tab).
North defends universities’ rights to no-platform: “Every university is a private venue and can choose who it gives space to and who it doesn’t. The right to freedom of speech is not the right to a platform to air that speech.”
Ariel Carson of UAL says: “I believe very strongly in free speech and take the view that if a particular individual is a horrible idiot the best thing to do is usually to shine a spotlight on them … I am not keen on totalitarianism, quasi-censorship or anything else that comes close to creating a social consensus that George Orwell’s 1984 thought crime exists in real life.”
Campus life has other concerns
‘If university campuses can’t tolerate free speech, where can?- Michela Wrong
But today’s student generation has more prosaic concerns. Free speech on campus is not an issue for most students, says Amatey Doku, vice president for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), the largest group representing UK students.
“It’s not in the top priority for students,” says the 22-year-old Cambridge University graduate. “You can ask a student, ‘What is a key issue for you? A key priority for you?’ Virtually none of them will have freedom of speech as an issue.”
Doku accuses the news media of overplaying the issue, and that students protesting against speakers are conflated with no-platforming. “[Protesting] is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. Its been happening for years, and years, and years. That is taken to be free speech when it’s actually an infringement of free speech.”
The only student on the OfS board, Ruth Carlson, says free speech is important to her personally. “I know the importance of having a platform to be able to speak on because in my own personal endeavours, I’ve been told to ‘sit down, shut up, stop talking about these things that I wanna talk about.'”
She conceded that it’s not a big worry for her peers: “When all students sit down, is this what they’re talking about? No. They’re talking about the fact that they can’t put the heating on at home because their student rent is too high.”
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A report for the UK government, released late March 2018, expressed serious concerns about barriers to free speech in universities including “intolerant attitudes, often incorrectly using the banner of ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe-space’ policies”. “Free speech within the law should mean just that. This can include the right to say things which, though lawful, others may find disturbing or upsetting,” said the report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. It also warned that university bureaucracy, as well as students, was hindering free speech.
Michela Wrong, who has been documenting Africa’s “democratic recession” for 25 years, starkly compares her experience to the situation in the UK.
“What’s happening in the countries that I report on is a very dramatic closing of the democratic space taking place, and of free speech, and you’re seeing rigging of elections, intimidation of civil society, censorship of the local press … Things are getting worse not better. And yet, the student body in the West is getting more and more apparently fragile.”
“If university campuses can’t tolerate free speech, where can?”