A Nouse study into student opinions on free speech and censorship at York has found that 64 per cent of students either disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that YUSU “upholds free speech on campus very well”.
By comparison, the survey found that just over half of students disagree or strongly disagree that the University itself upholds free speech very well, reflecting a slightly more favourable stance towards its track record on free speech than YUSU’s. When asked to respond to the statement “YUSU values free speech on campus very highly”, 56 per cent of students said that they disagreed or strongly disagreed. When asked to respond to the same statement of the University, 43 per cent responded negatively.
The news comes after York was downgraded from a ‘Green’ to ‘Amber’ university in Spiked’s University Free Speech Rankings. An ‘Amber’ university “chills free speech and free expression by issuing guidance with regard to appropriate speech and conduct”.
Spiked cites the cancellation of the University’s recognition of International Men’s Day in December 2015, as well as the University’s definition of harassment as including “offensive verbal or practical jokes”. The Guide also references YUSU’s zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment, which it says restricts “unwelcome or unwanted sexual innuendoes” to the detriment of free speech.
When asked if they agreed that the University’s cancellation of International Men’s Day at York was an example of campus censorship, 57 per cent answered ‘Yes’, with 10 per cent saying they weren’t sure. On the topic of the University’s definition of harassment as including “offensive verbal or practical jokes”, just 36 per cent of students felt that this represented an example of censorship.
215 responses were submitted to the survey in six days, which is the first of its kind to be conducted at York. Respondents – 98 per cent of whom agreed that free speech at a University was important or very important – were also asked to share their thoughts freely on the reasons for the answers provided.
On the point of YUSU’s track record, some felt that the Union’s duty of care interfered with its commitment to preserving free speech. One respondent said that YUSU’s “code of conduct focuses too much on ‘wellbeing’ to the detriment of rigorous debate and speech”, and another declared that “while it is crucial to strike a fair balance between minority rights and freedom of speech/expression, YUSU constantly favours the former at the expense of the latter”.
Others questioned the political neutrality of YUSU and pointed to this as potentially interfering with its ability to make decisions regarding free speech-related issues like no-platforming of speakers; one student said that “YUSU does a commendable job of supporting free speech for left wing views.” Another respondent declared YUSU’s insistence that all content be proofed before it can be published in student media as “a blatant contravention of the principle of free expression”.However, another student stated that “free speech is not devalued by YUSU to the extent it is by the University”.
Thoughts on the University’s approach to censorship and free speech mainly centred around its cancellation of International Men’s Day on campus. “The University has seemed easily persuaded at times to cancel events and speakers, rather than stand its ground for varied free speech,” one respondent said. Another pointed out that, while the University’s track record is “a bit of a mixed bag, they allowed the Pro-Life society to exist despite heavy opposition”.
On the subject of harassment guidelines, one said that “the rules against sexual harassment are 100 per cent justifiable, but when you include rules against ‘offensive verbal’ communication, you completely suffocate free speech”. Another student declared that “It’s hard to draw a line on things branded as ‘unwanted’ and/or ‘offensive’,” but that total acceptance of free speech was an equally “uncomfortable” prospect.
Of the survey findings, David Duncan, Registrar & Secretary, commented that “a commitment to upholding academic freedom and free speech more generally is integral to the University’s values. While encouraging all members of the University community to treat each other with courtesy and respect, we will continue to foster an environment in which students and staff can express their views freely.”
“Here at York we don’t have a no-platforming policy,” said YUSU President Ben Leatham. “It is not something students voted in favour of. The statistics shown are concerning though. Over my last five months as President I am committed to ensuring a standardised approach is established whereby the student papers are autonomous to write what they want within the law and any speaker is allowed to come and speak on campus provided no laws are broken.”