Last week, the University of York had its Free Speech University Ranking (FSUR) downgraded from Green to Amber, suggesting the University had ‘chilled free speech through intervention. Spiked, who put together the rankings, use a combination of Freedom of Information requests and publicly available resources to assess the actions and policies of student unions and universities.
The justification for the downgrade focused on the University’s harassment policy, which includes ‘offensive verbal or practical jokes’ in its definition, and the University’s cancelling of the International Men’s Day event.
YUSU too, has an Amber rating for its zero tolerance towards sexual harassment, restricting ‘unwelcome sexual gestures or innuendos’ and for ‘banning the rugby team for offensive tweets’. Though it is worth highlighting the fact that it was the hockey team caught sending offensive tweets, and the team was not ‘banned’.
Spiked produce their free speech traffic light system by judging the most severe policy or action taken that academic year, this means that if an institution produced 3 green policies and one red action, the final rating would be red.
Overall, spiked’s methodology is crude at best and only a rough measure of free speech on campus. However, it does help to highlight a number of key questions.
What do we mean by freedom of speech on campus? Does having a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment and having to face consequences for offensive verbal or practical jokes really infringe free speech? Can we really measure freedom of speech in such a simplistic fashion?
If we agree that there should be some limitations on free speech, in line with UK laws around hate speech and libel, then we have to ask whose responsibility should it be to enforce these rules?
University is often described as a miniature society and many of the clubs and societies on campus broadly mimic the work of national and international organisations. To some extent, most people at University are shadowing roles reflected in wider society, trialling what works, what doesn’t work and what they can get away with.
This poses the question, should it be the responsibility of student journalists and editors to conduct responsible journalism and follow legal guidelines, or should University and Union figures play a leading role? Of course some level of guidance and advice will always be required, but to what extent, and how it is implemented is still very much up for debate.
Free speech is a major topic on campuses across the country. The debate now goes well beyond regulating campus media, many institutions now hold no platform policies for controversial speakers and instead choose to skirt around sensitive topics at the expense of open discussion.