LGBTQ+ Soc slams red free speech ranking

Oxford was named the most “ban-happy” university in the magazine Spiked's league table

Brendan O'Neill, editor of Spiked, speaking at an Oxford Union debate on freedom of speech and the right to offend

Oxford’s LGBTQ+ Society has condemned Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings, after the University received a ‘red’ ranking for a fourth year in a row.

The ‘anti-Stalinist left’ magazine highlighted the University’s inclusion of misgendering in its harassment and bullying procedure as an example of how free speech is restricted at Oxford.

Oxford and Newcastle were named the most “ban-happy” universities in the rankings.

55 per cent of the 115 universities ranked received a ‘red’ rating, which implies an institution has “banned and actively censored ideas on campus”.

The LGBTQ+ Society told Cherwell it would “continue to both encourage the use of the correct pronouns, and to defend our university’s policies on both free speech and on hate speech to ensure an environment that allows all students to succeed.”

“The term ‘free speech’ is frequently misused by the privileged to protect their right to spread hatred,” it said. “The university must uphold a ban on hate speech to abide by national laws.

“If the authors of the piece are referring to the, thankfully false, rumour that the Student Union insisted that all students must use pronouns such as ‘ze’ then they have been misinformed.

“Asking that students use the correct pronouns upon the request of the individual, is an entirely different matter and we fail to see how this is an infringement on free speech.

“Free speech and safe spaces are not mutually exclusive. Using incorrect pronouns is simply incorrect.

“Doing so with malicious intent is of course another issue entirely.”

Spiked also highlighted Oxford SU’s banning of pro-life groups and the decision to stop student publication No Offence being handed out at the 2015 freshers’ fair.

The report also included the introduction of mandatory consent classes, Balliol JCR’s banning of the Christian Union from its internal freshers’ fair, and Queen’s JCR banning students from joining secret dining clubs.

Spiked’s deputy editor, Tom Slater, who coordinates the rankings, told Cherwell: “This is the university that produced the likes of Locke and Hobbes. That its students’ union today spends its time investigating ‘bad-taste bops’ is deeply embarrassing.

“[The University’s harassment and bullying policy] stated that ‘deliberately using the wrong name or pronoun in relation to a transgender person’ was an example of harassment, which might lead to disciplinary procedures.

“Compelling someone to say something, even out of politeness, is deeply corrosive to free speech.

“This policy implies that disagreeing with trans identity, or refusing to pay lip service to it, is a disciplinary offence.

“Whatever your stance on the issue, that’s bad news for students’ freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.”

Spiked uses a traffic-light system to assess and rank each university and students’ union based on policies and actions, and takes an average to determine the overall ranking. Both Oxford University and Oxford SU were ranked ‘red’.

The Student Union told Cherwell: “Oxford SU encourages students to use whichever pronouns they so choose.

“We would agree that any suggestion that use of gender-neutral pronouns restricts free speech is quite ridiculous – and only contributes to creating a more welcoming atmosphere.

“In terms of Oxford’s result on Spiked being red, Oxford SU is proud to be working towards a University space, where all students can fully participate.

“We continue to work closely with Liberation campaigns and other student groups.”


  1. It seems that Spiked has once again conflated some serious free speech issues such as the bans on pro-life groups (weirdly there’s no mention there of WomCam trying to shut down Oxford Students for Life’s abortion talk with Breda O’Brien, something that will only get worse as the VP women candidate was one of the protesters who tried to derail it), while on the other hand Spiked seems to be totally mixed up in claiming that mandatory (sexual) consent classes are attacks on free speech.

    Also, they don’t seem to have realised that the ban on the college CU in Balliol wasn’t the university or SU (even they aren’t quite that bad on free speech), but a small number of individuals in one college JCR acting well beyond their remit; actions which I am told were unanimously criticised at the next JCR meeting and were resolved amicably with the CU.

    The question around pronouns seem like a grey area in terms of free speech and ought on paper to be given a green rating (even if I would pose that it doesn’t happen in practice), theoretically there should be no problem as the SU promoting a viewpoint around gender issues is well within it’s remit.

    However, in practice it seems that the SU often still expects students to give their pronouns even when they don’t automatically want to or forget (or disagree with the underlying viewpoint). It’s an unfortunate irony that this either forceably outs transgender/non-binary students or forces them to lie about their identities, and I do wish the SU could also make it explicit policy that pronouns should only be specified by students who want to.

    Also, on a related free speech note, Spiked might want to mention WomCam’s support for buffer zones outside abortion clinics (that’s definitely an attack on free speech), which is actually quite ironic in view of the support it gets from Ann Furedi (head of Britain’s largest private abortion provider), who has written many times for Spiked in the past (and for that matter her husband is also a regular contributer to Spiked).


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