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Student unions should have nothing to do with policing speech

Summary:
Universities are struggling to protect freedom of speech in the face of overzealous demands from a small but vocal mob of student activists. These activists seek to sterilise life on campus. They have been particularly successful at toxifying student politics. Student unions now concentrate on a narrow “social justice” virtue-signalling political agenda focused on tackling alleged “structural oppression” against minority groups. Universities have a legal and moral duty to ensure that the freedom crucial to maintaining an atmosphere of discovery and debate are not buried under successive “safe space,” “inclusion,” and “liberation” policies. It is encouraging, therefore, that the Government has set out a new set of proposals to protect free speech on campus — several of which were advocated

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Universities are struggling to protect freedom of speech in the face of overzealous demands from a small but vocal mob of student activists.

These activists seek to sterilise life on campus. They have been particularly successful at toxifying student politics. Student unions now concentrate on a narrow “social justice” virtue-signalling political agenda focused on tackling alleged “structural oppression” against minority groups.

Universities have a legal and moral duty to ensure that the freedom crucial to maintaining an atmosphere of discovery and debate are not buried under successive “safe space,” “inclusion,” and “liberation” policies.

It is encouraging, therefore, that the Government has set out a new set of proposals to protect free speech on campus — several of which were advocated in the recent Adam Smith Institute report, State of the Unions.

The greater legal protections for students and academics who have been penalised or removed for exercising their freedom of speech will make universities think twice about following the braying mob. After all, it has always been their policy to go down the path of least resistance.

The inclusion of student unions in the legal obligation to preserve freedom of speech should also be welcomed. Student unions pose the greatest threat to open debate on campus. Filled with puritanical ideologues, they pursue regressive bans on speech, dress, and even hand gestures. Examples of ridiculous student union bans, such as those on sombreros, are widespread.

While these latest steps are welcome, threats to freedom of speech on campus are unlikely to disappear. The Government must go further in enforcing free expression protection and disempowering censorious student unions.

The new rules mean that student unions will likely cease explicit ‘no-platforming’ of speakers. But the risk remains that they will impose substantial bureaucratic hurdles, such as requiring a student society to provide two months notice or pay security costs for a controversial speaker. These barriers are de facto censorship: relatively few student societies have the organisational capacity and monetary resources necessary to overcome these barriers.

Just this month Durham University Students’ Union decided that it would vet all “high-risk” speakers who wish to speak both on and off campus. If a speaker is deemed ‘controversial’ by the SU, then 4 weeks’ notice must be given, they may have to provide their speech in advance for approval, and if approved the SU may insist on adding additional speakers to provide “balance.” The SU’s definition of a high risk is someone who has “links to any person or groups connected with controversy.”

A recent paper on free speech produced by a number of student union officers and a lobbyist advocated the same approach. A risk assessment should investigate “the potential for the speaker’s presence on campus to cause harassment, alarm or distress to members of the student body.”

“The student union,” they said “also has a duty to think about how it can promote equality and minimise tension and prejudice between different groups on campus - and even where it facilitates events and debate, must consider the potential impact on students who may feel vilified or marginalised by the views expressed."

Of course lots of groups now claim that any criticism makes them ‘feel vilified and marginalised,’ so the SU officials propose that then a whole range of restrictions are applied, as in Durham. It will be necessary for the Free Speech Champion and the Office for Students to be highly vigilant against these tactics.

To prevent continuing attempts at censorship student unions should have nothing to do with controlling free speech on campus. SUs are completely unrepresentative institutions, elected by on average around just one-in-ten students, as the recent ASI report revealed. Most students regard the political activists who control SUs with absolute contempt. The free speech crisis on campus will only be effectively tackled once the wider problem of taxpayer-funded compulsory student unions is addressed.

In his introduction to the free speech proposals Gavin Williamson state that “some students’ unions have been granted inappropriate levels of control over which speakers can visit and how student societies can operate”. He is absolutely right. The appropriate level of control is zero.

Max Young is an Edinburgh University student who has served as Deputy Editor of 1828.org.uk and Free Market Conservatives. He is the co-author of the ASI’s report, State of the Unions.

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