Campus censorship is a myth. That’s the new line being spun by student union officials and university leaders in response to the campaigners, commentators and politicians raising concerns about the increasingly censorious culture on British campuses. The extent of No Platforming, Safe Space censorship and newspaper bans, they say, is being exaggerated by right-wing hacks desperate for something to fulminate about.
Up to now, it’s an argument that’s been easy enough to dismiss given the very people making it are usually the ones responsible for the campus censorship we read about. But a BBC ‘Fact Check’, purporting to back-up their claims, has, irritatingly, given them a bit of a boost.
The BBC sent freedom of information requests to universities across Britain to ask if they had made any changes to courses, removed any books from libraries or cancelled any speakers as a result of complaints from offended students. Of 120 responses, they found that, since 2010, there have only been four instances of course content being removed, six occasions of universities cancelling speakers and zero instances of books being removed or banned. ‘The number of incidents uncovered are small’, it concludes – to much applause from the higher-ed Twittersphere.
But there are gaping holes in this supposed takedown of campus censorship hysteria.
The first problem is that the measures they’ve chosen are so narrow as to be misleading. Universities banning books and changing course materials has barely featured in the cases of campus censorship we’ve seen in recent years. What has, is the banning of events and external speakers and the build-up of policies that seek to warn students and speakers off, or outright ban them from uttering, ‘offensive’ words and ideas.
There have been university policies that, for instance, ban ‘transphobic’ material outright, which in today’s climate could even make teaching a biology class tricky. But policies like this were not assessed as part of the BBC investigation – though spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, which has logged policies and one-off bans, does get a mention.
Stranger still is the incredibly partial way in which the BBC has looked at the issue of speaker bans. While it makes brief reference to one instance of an SU censoring an external speaker, its investigation into the number of speaker bans on campus focuses only on universities, despite the fact that the majority are meted out by students’ unions. The BBC notes that SUs are exempt from the legal obligations to uphold freedom of speech that universities are. But considering students’ unions often control a number of key campus venues in which students hold events, this is a huge oversight. I dare say that the omission of SUs from the research had more to do with the fact that their exemption from freedom of information laws makes it trickier to find out what they’ve been up to.
But frankly, an hour on Google would disabuse you of the notion that speaker bans are this rare. Six since 2010? Since 2014, Julie Bindel, Tommy Robinson and Islamic preacher Haitham al-Haddad have racked up seven bans between them – at Manchester and Sheffield; Durham, Edinburgh and Brookes; and Kent and Westminster, respectively. Then there’s human-rights campaigner Maryam Namazie, who was banned by Warwick Students’ Union; Kurdish fighter Macer Gifford, who was banned by UCL Students’ Union; and spiked’s Brendan O’Neill and Telegraph writer Tim Stanley, who were banned from speaking about abortion at Christ Church College, Oxford. And that’s all without mentioning the groups who are blanket banned by students’ unions under the National Union of Students’ No Platform policy – a significant restriction on free speech the BBC briefly mentions, but doesn’t factor in to its assessment of the scale and number of speaker bans on campus.
Measuring campus censorship is by no means easy. Much of it is cultural, rather than institutional. Some events are shut down on the night by campus protests. Others are shut down by campus officials using convenient technicalities. Students, academics and external speakers no doubt self-censor when discussing some of the more touchy subjects of the day. But even if you stick to the bans and policies enacted by universities and students’ unions, the ‘it barely happens’ argument just doesn’t stack up.
It’s ironic that student officials and lecturers accused of shutting down people they disagree with are so keen to dismiss their critics by means of dodgy and misleading stats. And it’s also ironic that on Wednesday, 24 hours after the BBC ‘Fact Check’ was published, students at Oxford voted to ban a controversial Christian group from Lady Margaret Hall. If campus censorship is a myth, someone should probably tell them.