It’s that time of year again. The newspapers, I imagine, will soon be running a slew of ‘students have decided to imprison anyone who doesn’t agree with Marx/Gramsci’ articles. There is a primary source for this sort of stuff, and it’s the Spiked Free Speech rankings. These get published every year, and serve as the main quotation for many people citing the ‘crisis of free speech’ on campuses. This analysis often goes more or less unchallenged, so in this article, I really want to get to the bottom of why they’re bad, why you shouldn’t listen to them, and why it’s actually really weird that 40-something men have such a hard-on for student politics.
Firstly, let’s look at why Spiked’s rankings are bad. They have a page with lots of numbers on, which gives it the veneer of science – at least to the average hack who casts a glance over it after lunch, with a deadline looming and a brief to write about the Youths™. Their methodology, however, is remarkably simple. They just look at student’s unions and universities, see if they’ve done things that Spiked don’t like, and then claim that such-and-such percent of Universities are suddenly full of censorious Stasi members. That’s their metric – ‘stuff we don’t like’ – or at least, they have not published details of their metric in terms of the way they decide if something is an amber or a red. The issue with this, of course, is that it combines some things that are actually worrying about things that basically everyone agrees are reasonable. This allows them to more or less fudge their data – and I’ll give you an example. Spiked gives our institution a Red rating – the worst possible. Here’s two things that Spiked say are of equal threat to free speech. Banning newspapers, and banning payday loan companies from advertising to students in financial trouble. There is an interesting argument to be had about the banning of newspapers, and many people found that decision troubling. I know of very few people who would argue that banning Wonga from exploiting campus residents represents a threat to the free speech of students. It’s almost as if they’re actually promoting an ideology of their own, really.
We get another amber for our code of conduct, specifically the part where we ask people to not to engage in ‘offensive behaviour or language (whether oral or in writing) while on union premises or using or participating in any union services or activities’. The argument made, presumably, is the old one about ‘who defines offensive’. This is a good argument for about five seconds until you realise that social mores are a thing that exist and concordantly we all pretty much know what offensive speech might be. Racial slurs. Gendered slurs. Getting in someone’s face and yelling repeatedly that you’ve engaged in sexual congress with their mother. All of those things are generally accepted to be offensive. The ‘Who me, guv?’ attitude that Spiked takes is, in my opinion, completely disingenuous. Only someone lacking in any kind of social skills would not understand what is offensive and what is not, and though I consider some of their writers to be malodourous hacks who can’t get a gig writing about anything that isn’t literally fucking student politics, I am at least willing to credit them with base social understanding.
Spiked argues that having any sort of safe space policy is a threat to free speech. LJMU get a red for not allowing fascists onto campus. And then there’s this gem, which keeps cropping up from University to University. Harassment policy. According to Spiked, if your institution or student’s union has a policy to prevent the sexual harassment of students, then that’s a threat to free speech. Not just a threat, but the worst kind of threat. It gets us a ‘red’ mark against our student body. That, to me, is abhorrent. Universities are a place where sexual harassment does occur – from lad culture to creepy lecturers. Pretending it doesn’t is unhelpful. Worse than that, however, is actively arguing that we need to prevent institutions from trying to tackle it – because when you scratch beneath the surface, what Spiked is advocating for is the withdrawal of these policies it highlights as a threat to free speech. If there’s one thing that the grim last few months seemed to have done, it’s open people’s eyes to the endemic way in which women are harassed and abused in our society. That’s why you shouldn’t listen when Spiked start telling you that free speech is being eradicated. Because they are deeply disingenuous when it comes to the way in which they portray free speech issues and harassment policies as the same thing. And these policies are needed. Now more than ever.
That’s why I get furious when there’s bilge in the papers about ‘snowflake students’ – because Queen Mary is not a censorious campus. I have discussions and debates every week, without fail, that tackle spicy, controversial topics. In the past week, I’ve had people debate with me and discuss with me on Israel, British foreign policy, the abolition of the state, and the privatization of the NHS. These are all controversial topics, and yet I’ve had students discuss these with me vigorously and with spirit, and they have not shied away from their opinions. Not even the fact that I am literally always right made them back down. Plus, if there is a problem with free speech on campus, it tends to be a social issue rather than an institutional one – and Spiked and their ilk (such as those in Government) tend to view all free speech issues through an institutional lens. This wrongheaded view of the problem that means that the solutions posed range from ineffective to truly harmful. If the sort of people that write for Spiked do want to see change, the solution is for there to be a discourse, and a culture argument made, not a culture war fought.