Featured Image from Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings
Before we begin, let us cast our minds back to a decade ago: Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, floods were causing chaos, Kate Nash was in the charts and I have just handed this piece of work out to the people of 2007. In this hypothetical realm of possibility, I can guarantee that those reading this work would give me quizzical looks upon finishing. This being for the simple fact that most of the jargon and issues discussed in this work did not exist a decade ago, or at least not in the present and popularised form they do now. ‘Safe spaces’ were more communal than political (Harris, 2015), ‘trigger warnings’ had yet to make it beyond the fanfiction corners of the internet (Vingiano, 2014) and ‘generation snowflake’ were barely hitting puberty (Collins English Dictionary, 2016). If anything, through this musing I believe I have highlighted the fascinating, complex and, possibly, concerning speed of how issues of censorship on university campuses have risen to the mainstream: described as an ‘epidemic’ by online magazine Spiked (2016a). In our present situation, one cannot discuss the censorship of a radical speaker, lewd pop song or culturally appropriative costumes on a university campus without using the aforementioned jargon. For, in such a short space of time this jargon has become ingrained into the conversation on censorship, it is so intrinsic that if you do not know the lingo you are effectively leaving yourself culturally short-changed. Over the last decade these terms have gained traction through a generation like no other: one that has grown up in an interconnected, multimedia world where every thought and feeling can be posted to the internet to be read, shared and reread by anyone across the globe. Within this their fears and dislikes are hidden by trigger warnings, while safe space blogs allow them to share in the unchallenged correctness of their opinions. Fundamentally, in an era of globalised connectivity a sense of united egocentrism has been instilled in a whole generation. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when students who can so easily block offensive content from their browsers, and the browsers of others, feel it is only natural to transfer this censorship to their campuses. In the midst of this situation, this piece of work aims to examine the manner in which censorship exists on university campuses in the United Kingdom. Where it will endeavour to interrogate, most importantly, whether it is the place of students to decide what should or should not be censored.
It is in his article for The National Student, that Ben Ramanauskas illustrates how the rise in censorship has ‘gained traction on college and university campuses in the United States’ before becoming ‘increasingly popular in universities in the United Kingdom’. He goes on to describe how censorship ‘is having a devastating impact upon freedom of speech on university campuses and is a threat to the freedoms and liberty of us all’ (2016). Ramanauskas’s viewpoint, albeit damning, is just one of many in an endless stream of Google search pages on the topic where like marmite, Brexit and assisted suicide, censorship on campus completely divides opinion. However, the debate of censorship is not a simplistic, two-sided one that discusses ‘bans on offensive speakers, saucy pop songs, un-PC student societies and laddish sports teams’ (Spiked, 2016b). As I have aforementioned it is a jargon laden minefield whereby the concepts that make up the act of censorship such as trigger warnings are ‘often ranted about in the same breath as no-platforming and safe spaces’ (Gust, 2016). It is these individual concepts which deeply polarise the censorship debate where with their broad and varied usage on campuses has painted them in two ways: as liberators of free speech, or, as a threat to it.
When discussing these concepts their definitions are particularly vital, as it is these definitions which act as the reason they are seen to either support, or oppose, freedom of speech. In his article for Buzzfeed, Vingiano colloquially asserts: ‘Scroll through Tumblr, search on Twitter, or glance over almost any feminist blog and you’re bound to stumble upon the “trigger warning,” a bold introductory statement alerting readers that unsettling content follows’ (2014). Trigger warnings, alongside safe spaces, are the concepts which began life in a far less politically adherent manner compared to the notion of no-platforming. From its origins in psychology, trigger warnings began to garnish a subcultural social use across many popular fanfiction blogging platforms in the mid-2000’s. Fanfiction authors began using trigger warnings as a means of altering readers to graphic or ‘triggering’ material in their writing, a trigger being an experience that causes a person to recall a particularly traumatic event. Something of which the Diagnostic and Statistical of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, explains as ‘marked physiological reactions to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s)’ (2013 265). For example, if there was a fanfiction where Spock attempted suicide or Xena was violently attacked then a trigger warning would be given. Thus, following this in the early 2010s, trigger warnings made their way from their niche fanfiction sites to large, mainstream blogging platforms, such as Tumblr, before inevitably moving offline with their users to university campuses.
It was then in 2014 that Bailey Loverin, a student at the University of Santa Barbara, authored one of the first resolutions to mandate that professors should provide trigger warnings for the content in their classes. ‘It’s really not anyone else’s business to tell someone when they are mentally and emotionally ready to deal with things’, Loverin explained. (Weissmueller, 2014). Loverin’s mandate is just the first of many in an eclectic list of examples that explicitly highlight the transference of censorious jargon to censorious action on campus. In fact, her mandate unintentionally spurred a ‘national debate’ on triggers warnings in the United States (Wilson, 2015). However, of course, the debate is as prevalent in the United Kingdom where concepts such as trigger warnings and safe spaces are rife across university campuses. Safe spaces, like trigger warnings, were first utilised in a non-politicised manner as physically protective spaces for the LGBTQ+ and black communities. Again, much like trigger warnings, safe spaces have attracted criticism for being seen to stifle freedom of speech and debate on university campuses. Be it a campaign against Germaine Greer speaking at Cardiff University or the cancellation comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show at Goldsmiths University, safe spaces are often created by students in response to a speaker, event or policy that threatens their wellbeing. Anthony defining it as ‘a concept that in practice is much less about physical security than psychological sensitivity’ and is a space, or zone, ‘both geographical and mental, in which threats to a student’s identity, be they cultural or sexual, are not tolerated but banned or removed’ (2016). Such criticism on the topic has even led Prime Minister Theresa May to pass comment, where she stated in Prime Minister Questions: ‘We want our universities not just to be places of learning but to be places where there can be open debate which is challenged […] I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary, frankly’ (Hughes, 2016). As with all debates these concepts do have their proponents and defence, Pickett valuing their merit, explaining that ‘Safe spaces and trigger warnings can help support victims of assault, PTSD and violence’ (2016). For this reason it can be argued that the National Union of Students (NUS) avidly promotes safe spaces on campus, as a means of inclusion and support for all students. Something NUS President Malia Bouattia defended as ‘people’s democratic rights to apply what they need to facilitate engagement, inclusion and accessibility for all’ (Today, 2016).
Thus, as it has been made evident, censorship on campus is the complex, hot-button topic of the moment and yet it does not just divide public opinion. It both personally and institutionally divides the campuses themselves, where universities are often at odds with their Students’ Unions on freedom of speech. This situation is something that is highlighted in the nuance research conducted by Spiked, who launched their Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) in 2015 as a means of examining campus censorship. In an article for The Telegraph Tom Slater, Spiked’s assistant editor and coordinator of the Rankings, states that ‘eighty per cent of universities censor speech, and students’ unions are leading the way – 61 per cent have received a red light’ (2015). The study examines censorship by surveying the policies and actions of 115 universities in the UK and their respective Students’ Unions, ranking the results using a traffic-light system. Within this system a Green ranking denotes a ‘hands off approach’ to free speech, Amber means the institution has ‘chilled free speech through intervention’ and, finally, Red where ideas on campus have been ‘banned and actively censored’ (Spiked, 2016a). However, ‘Not everyone will agree with the criteria Spiked used in its rankings. Banning an event, a speaker or a song – all cited as reasons for being graded “red” – is usually considered an act of censorship. But an equality policy stating that homophobic, sexist and racist language will not be tolerated also attracts a red rating’ (Tickle, 2015). While the methodology may be questionable Spiked’s research does highlight the aforementioned dichotomous attitudes towards censorship, where Students’ Unions are ‘almost four times more likely to be ranked Red’ than their universities counterparts (Spiked, 2016c).
One such example of this dichotomy being Brunel University London, in which the university itself is ranked Amber while its Students’ Union, the Union of Brunel Students, is ranked Red. The ranking being explained as:
‘Brunel University and the Union of Brunel Students collectively create a hostile environment for free speech. The university, which has maintained its Amber ranking, restricts ‘offensive’ speech and ‘unwarranted criticism’. The students’ union, which has maintained its Red ranking, holds a de facto ban on ‘lad culture’, has banned adverts promoting ‘vice’ and has banned ‘Blurred Lines’. The institution’s overall ranking remains Red’ (Spiked, 2016d).
In a defiant rebuttal, Union of Brunel Students President Ali Milani rebukes Spiked’s research, in an interview conducted for this academic analysis, as ‘not worth the paper it’s printed on’ (Milani, 2016). When asked about a dichotomy of policies on campus he explained that ‘no this is common, because the Students Union is an independent organisation from the university so its common that they have one policy and we have a another, in fact, that’s sort of the point of students unions’ (ibid) This statement, interestingly enough, coming nearly one year after the Union’s most publicised and debatably censorious act, one that divided opinion on its West London campus: walking out on columnist Katie Hopkins.
In the autumn of 2015 Hopkins was invited to join a panel for a debate on the future of the welfare state, as part of the university’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Following the announcement of her participation discontent was palpable with some students, who then took to social media to express their disapproval. Posting on his public Facebook page, Brunel SU President, on the October 2nd Ali Milani stated: ‘We are fundamentally opposed to someone with such overtly bigoted and offensive views being provided a platform on one of the most diverse campuses in Europe’ (2015a). However, regardless of student dissatisfaction the debate went ahead with its secluded November 23rd event date. It was here that during Hopkins introduction ‘around 50 students’ (Saul, 2015) stood up and silently filed out of the auditorium, in protest of her presence on campus. This simply orchestrated walkout made shock waves in the media, where within a few short days it had been reported on by most major news outlets including The Huffington Post, The Telegraph, BBC News and Sky News. Hopkins herself even penning a column for the Daily Mail in which she described Brunel students as ones who ‘do not wish to open their minds to society. They want to hear what they have already decided is true’ (2015). It was in the midst of this media storm that a new debate was born, one which returns me to my original question in this piece. Where, when dividing opinion both on and off campus were the students right, or even justified, in taking censorious action against Katie Hopkins?
It, like the wider debate of censorship on campus, is a complicated one. When representing the Union of Brunel Students their Communications Manager Joe Nicell defended the protest, and explained ‘we didn’t feel that she fitted the debate and she wasn’t the right person to be speaking’ (Saul, 2015). However, the voice of the Union does not clearly represent the voice of the student body when so many contradicting opinions were voiced in the wake of the protest. One student stating in a Facebook post ‘the way Brunel students handled her involvement with the debate was poor. Completely agree with her statement about the students. Embarrassing for Brunel if I’m totally honest’ (Facebook, 2015b), while another was ‘Proud to be a Brunelian right now’ (Facebook, 2015c). Perhaps the divide in opinion was felt so acutely because it was ‘really thin line to walk down’ (Milani, 2016), one in which effectively brought the nationwide issue of censorship on campus to Brunel in a media spotlight buzz. Quite literally, turning the political into the personal for the students. However, while opinions on the topic may seem diametrically opposed Milani does believe that the Union ‘walked the line perfectly’, by creating a somewhat best-of-both scenario as ‘the whole point of getting up, turning our backs and walking out was that you have every right to speak, we have every right not to listen’ (ibid). Thus, by simply turning their backs Milani believes that the Union was in no way censorious or infringed upon Hopkins freedom of speech and called such accusations ‘nonsensical’. For in his article for The Huffington Post he stated ‘that the conversation at no point has been about banning Ms Hopkins from speaking on campus, or denying her right to speak’ (Milani, 2015).
This aforementioned notion of ‘best-of-both’ is a discourse that follows a trend in attitudes towards censorship within the student population. This is best highlighted in a comprehensive report entitled ‘Keeping Schtum? What students think of free speech’ by the Higher Education Policy Institute. In this report, statements and questions were posed to the student participants and they had to respond with whether they agreed or disagreed on a 1 to 5 likert scale. One, in particular stood out: ‘Education should not be comfortable, universities are places of debate and challenging ideas’ (2016 13). The results for this were clear where the highest portion of the students, 32%, chose the most neutral option between ‘completely disagree’ and ‘completely agree’ (ibid). This is interesting as it can be applied to the Hopkins-Brunel debate or any other wider issues regarding censorship on campus, suggesting that students believe in freedom of speech and open debate but also believe in limits. As the study concludes, it suggests that a large majority of students ‘are ambivalent or have not come to a conclusion about an issue that some academics consider a defining feature of higher education’ (2016 12).
To return to the original question as a means of conclusion, is it was the right of students to decide what should, or should not, be censored on their campuses? From the research it is clear that there is no easy solution as the topic of free speech is a passionate one, where to allow unadulterated free speech would displease one group of students but to censor would anger another. Instead, a best-of-both scenario must be employed: where if a university invites a speaker or holds an event then there should be free and open debate but alongside this the institution should also provide an optional safe space and trigger warnings. This being because the university is there for all its students, be them rigorous debaters or those who have already made their minds up on an issue. Thus, there would be no need for censoring as both spaces would be utilised, students would have no need to protest speakers or infringe upon their freedom of speech. For, it is never the right of one student or a group of students to censor for others, if they do not want to engage with a speaker or issue then they do not have to; the only person they have the right to censor is themselves.
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