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University of Edinburgh receives “red” rating for campus free speech

ByThurston Smalley

Jan 25, 2016


The University of Edinburgh’s student’s association has received a ‘red’ rating for free speech on campus in the second annual Free Speech University Rankings, compiled by libertarian magazine Spiked.

Campus-wide policies on “Dignity and Respect” and trans equality earned the University itself an ‘amber’ rating, meaning that it “has chilled free speech through intervention”.

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA), received a ‘red’ rating, meaning that the students’ union “has banned and actively censored ideas on campus”.

At issue, according to Spiked, are EUSA’s policies on Safe Space, ending “Rape Culture and Lad Banter”, and costumes. The latter policy aims to prevent students from wearing Halloween costumes deemed offensive for reasons of cultural appropriation, racism, homophobia, or rape apologism.

EUSA’s rating dragged the University’s overall free speech rating down to ‘red’ for the second time in as many years.

Blair Spowart, a fourth year philosophy student who served as a panelist at last year’s contentious “Down with Campus Censorship” debate, itself organised by Spiked and chaired by the magazine’s Deputy Editor, said that despite the university receiving the same rating as last year, speech on campus was becoming more restricted.

Spowart told The Student: “I think attitudes on both sides of this debate have hardened over the past year. So while student politicians across the country seem more censorious than ever, the backlash has been growing, not just from students but also from academics and other university leaders.

“The Safe Space policies are the most worrying for me. Their use of woolly and subjective terminology (“offence”, “feeling uncomfortable”) means that students’ unions can use them to clamp down on pretty much anything, even people (see Germaine Greer).

“We’re told that they’re about the free speech of women and minorities. But what this really suggests is that, unlike straight, white men, women and minorities cannot be expected to handle speech which is offensive to them without the caring hand of the SU.

“And, naturally, they’re only ever used in the protection of women and minorities who agree with the SU. I’ve had friends dismissed as having “internalised misogyny” or called “Uncle Tom” and “race traitor” by these preachers of “inclusivity” in the SUs for daring to agree with us.”

In remarks to The Student, EUSA President Jonny Ross-Tata m downplayed the significance of the University’s ‘red’ rating and defended the Association’s policies.

Ross-Tatam said: “A lot of the rhetoric in this debate seems overblown. Go to any debate or event on campus, organised by our Students’ Union or any political or debating society and you will see students freely debating a whole range of issues, from politics to economics, climate change and religion.

“Our safe spaces are about giving every student an equal platform to have their say without having to face abuse and discrimination.”

Ross-Tatam also disputed the notion that EUSA’s policies infringe on students’ speech. He said: “EUSA’s policies are there to broaden free speech. We want every student to be able to freely debate, share and challenge ideas without having to face abuse or discrimination.

“If, say, a student faces racist abuse during a debate, then their ability to speak freely may be compromised. Our aim is to give all students an equal platform to have their say during debates, which we believe is fundamental to free speech.”

Spowart, however, accused EUSA and other students’ unions of forcing a social justice-driven agenda on students.

He said: “I think we’ve lost sight of what universities are there for. Just as I don’t accept the argument that universities are there to feed businesses, I don’t accept the SU view of universities as vehicles for their idea of social justice.

“Universities are there in order to add to and disseminate knowledge and to develop our ability to think for ourselves. Both of these functions are undermined when SUs clamp down on offensive or uncomfortable speech and fail to trust students to listen to controversial views and make up their own minds.”

But for his part, Ross-Tatum said that EUSA’s policies, including those relating to Halloween costumes, were crafted with no other agenda than to guarantee a welcoming and comfortable environment for all students.

Ross-Tatum said: “Our responsibility is to ensure that every student can enjoy a great night in our venues and it is our responsibility to respond when students tell us that certain costumes would affect that.

“We will continue to work with all students to make sure that everyone can enjoy their nights in our venues.”

Image credit: Flickr: dun_deagh 

By Thurston Smalley

Thurston is a final year French and politics student from Chertsey, England. He first wrote for his high school newspaper, The Phillipian, in 2009. He began writing for The Student in 2011, became News Editor in 2012, and Editor in Chief in 2015. He currently serves as President.

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