Online magazine Spiked has published a ranking of the attitudes of British universities towards free speech, placing Oxford in the “red” category. The website states that universities in this category, the “most censorious” one, have “banned and actively censored ideas on campus”.
The ranking looked at University, OUSU, and college policies. Spiked accused the University of restricting free speech through its harassment policy, which restricts “needless” and “provocatively offensive” speech, and its internet regulations. These ban the publishing of racist, sexist, or homophobic material.
Trudy Coe, the Head of the University Equality and Diversity unit, stated, “The policy expressly provides that vigorous academic debate will not amount to harassment when it is conducted respectfully and without violating the dignity of others or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
In response to this, Tom Slater, the compiler of Spiked’s rankings, told Cherwell, “The definition of harassment has been expanded to the point of meaninglessness. We can’t allow well-meaning policy such as this one to permit censorship by the back door.”
The ranking claimed that the University was responsible for cancelling the OSFL abortion debate last term. However, this was a College decision. Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church, refuted the allegation that the event was “banned”, telling Cherwell, “We simply said that with the amount of notice given, there was not enough time to make the appropriate arrangements, and conduct an exercise in consultation.”
Also criticised was the use of trigger warnings at OUSU Council. Louis Trup responded, “If policies like trigger warnings constitute a threat to freedom of speech in Spiked’s definition, then it is clearly seriously flawed. It is a work of pseudo-social science crafted towards a political end, and anybody with a basic understanding of research skills will know to take this ‘news’ with a massive pinch of salt.”
The ranking also condemned Balliol JCR’s ban on ‘Blurred Lines’ and the supposed disbanding of Pembroke Rugby Club after a “joke email”.
Becky Howe, Pembroke JCR President at the time, commented, “I was surprised to see ‘Pembroke College disbands rugby team for joke email’ as a reason for Oxford’s ‘red’ rating. Firstly, it’s incorrect – Pembroke’s rugby club was not disbanded. Secondly, it was popular reaction against the email that brought it to public attention, discussion and condemnation – I’m not sure how this equates to censorship of ideas, personally. Thirdly, if calling people out for misogyny and sexism is a bad thing according to Spiked ‘researchers’, I’d like to sit them down and have a long chat about that.”
Slater responded, “Yes, calling people out for misogyny is a good thing. Silencing them is not. This is the problem, we’ve gotten into a position where censorship is seen as a means of tackling backwards ideas. It’s not.”