Oxford in the red in free speech ranking

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RELEASED last Monday, Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Ranking (FSUR) 2016 has claimed that 63 British universities regularly censor their students’ speech. University of Oxford is in this category, shown in red under the survey’s ‘traffic light’ system employed to indicate limitation of freedom of speech, where green indicates a “handsoff approach” and amber an institution that has “chilled free speech”. 

As was the case last year, Oxford belongs to the 90 per cent of ‘red’ universities alleged to use censorship against students and their campaigns, out of a total of 115 institutions examined across the United Kingdom. The London School of Economics and the universities of Bath and Edinburgh are similarly rated red. 

Oxford’s result is based on various instances of censorship which caused a debate in the media, including the controversial decision to ban the magazine No Offence from Freshers’ Fair last October. However, the University and the Student Union are counted separately in the ranking. While OUSU and various colleges like Balliol and Pembroke were repeatedly reported as “having banned and actively censored ideas”, the University itself is represented in amber for having “chilled free speech through intervention.” 

The University’s code of practice protects “freedom of speech, within the law, for members, students and employees of the 

University, as well as for visiting speakers,” said a University spokesperson, referring to the Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech published by the institution in February 2015. According to this document, Oxford promotes “a culture of free, open and robust discussion.” 

The idea of a balance between freedom and restrictions enabling large groups of people to interact productively was highlighted by Professor Louise Richardson shortly after her installation as the new Vice-Chancellor: “I think universities, if you like, are the best places in which to hear objectionable speech because you can counter it. If you allow reasonable counter-arguments to those views you will delegitimise [them] and that’s what a university should do.” Professor Richardson equally believes that Oxford’s main aim should be to “ensure that we educate our students both to embrace complexity and retain conviction, while daring ‘to disturb the universe’.” 

The project was led as part of a campaign called ‘Down with Campus Censorship!’, and Rhodes Must Not Fall founder Jacob Williams said he considered it, “A crude measure. The University seems to be waking up to the problem and not before time, but the real issue is how to change attitudes. Actual censorship is only a tiny part of it; we have a culture of dogmatism which makes it hard to challenge received wisdom on subjects like race, gender, and LGBT.” 

Spiked are right to raise these concerns. The problem is mainly one of culture, though – the University authorities are mostly reasonable, but our generation has grown up taking progressivism for granted and we can’t empathise with other moral frameworks.” 

When asked what effects the University’s policies towards freedom of speech have had on the movement he started, he added, “Rhodes Must Fall largely share this attitude. If anything they were helped by it, through making the silent majority found in the recent poll frightened to speak out.” 

When asked for comment Yussef Robinson, a second year student at St. Hilda’s, told Cherwell, “Given that Spiked arose out of the bankruptcy of its predecessor magazine for losing a libel case, sparked by its denial of the horrors of the Trnopolje concentration camp, it is understandable it would mistaken free speech with freedom from criticism. Unfortatenly for Spiked, legitimate protest is itself a free speech act and measuring trigger warnings as an attack on free speech higlights just how badly they appear to have misunderstood what free speech actually entails.” 

Amongst the national statistics that the Spiked report released were that, within the past year, 30 universities had banned newspapers, 25 had banned songs, 21 per cent were judged to have safe-space policies and 39 per cent have “no platforming” policies. 

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