Note: This article was originally hosted on the Leicester Ripple website (the University of Leicester’s student paper). Leicester university student media has since changed and the website, and therefore the article, are no longer online there. It was originally posted in March 2015.
The University of Leicester has been given a red ranking for free speech, among the worst in the country, by a recent survey.
The survey, conducted by spiked-online.com and sponsored by The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and Policy Exchange, gave the University’s policies and amber light but the Student Union’s policies and actions brought the whole institution down to red. Cited among the free speech infringements are the University’s Harassment and Discrimination Policy and the SU’s boycott of The Sun.
The red light may not come as a surprise to some, who campaigned against the boycott of The Sun just under a year ago and the ban of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines during the 2013 Fresher’s Week. However, Michael Rubin, the Student Union President, has said that ‘the methodology these people have used is ridiculous, unscientific and totally subjective’, also pointing out that ‘many of the policies…are part of a HR policy to keep staff and volunteers safe in their work environment’.
For example, the extract of the Student Union’s LGBTQ policy that the website highlights as an infringement on free speech reads:
‘[Resolves] to ensure that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and any other forms of victimisation, discrimination, harassment or hatred of LGBTQ people is not tolerated in this union or the University of Leicester.’
When asked whether it was fair that policies such as the above were deemed an infringement, Tom Slater, part of the spiked-online survey, replied:
‘Yes. The test of free speech is your willingness to defend even the most abhorrent ideas – the views you most viscerally oppose… People have the right to be bigots. Students’ unions should not have the power to discipline them on the basis of their thoughts and speech. The onus is on all students to argue with and tackle these ideas where they find them.’
Slater also says that: ‘No university or students’ union policy should restrict speech – other than where such speech is in breach of law. This is not because we endorse bigoted views, its because we want them to be challenged.’
Rubin shares a different view. ‘There is a difference between “freedom of speech” and “freedom to harm”’, he says. ‘We have policies in place to stop homophobia because they do not mean free speech – fascists are not interested in free speech, only spreading hate’.
Rubin also notes that several of the policies or actions that are highlighted as opposed to free speech, such as the boycott of The Sun, were decided democratically by the Union Council. Perhaps also worth noting is the fact that 47 of the 115 universities surveyed (40.8%) earned a red ranking, including Oxford, LSE, and UCL, and a further 45 (39.1%) gained only an amber ranking, so the University has not been singled out for criticism by the survey.