Nouse asked you how you felt about the University’s downgrading from ‘Green’ to ‘Amber’ in Spiked’s University Free Speech Rankings. You came back with echoes of disappointment at YUSU and the University in their commitment to the ambiguous value of free speech.
We have to ask ourselves, though: why did Spiked cite our policy on harassment and the cancellation of International Men’s Day as the reason for the downgrade?
Of the 215 people who took our survey in six days, 98% believed free speech at University was important or very important. That’s good, right? We like Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on freedom of expression. What about Article 19 from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? It reminds us of “special duties and responsibilities” associated with such a principle. ICCPR states that the law must ensure the “respect of the rights or reputations of others”, with necessary restrictions for “the protection of … public order… or of public health or morals”.
Our University has a special duty to ensure that people are protected. It’s difficult to see why anyone would view our University’s harassment policy as a threat to free speech. The survey reflected this, with just 36% of students arguing that the policy is an example of censorship, with a further 15% remaining unsure.
Regarding International Men’s Day, opinions are much stronger. 57% of the respondents believed the cancellation was an example of censorship, with only 10% saying they weren’t sure. Respondents implied a lack of commitment for maintaining free speech on campus. One person mentioned that the Pro-Life society exists despite heavy opposition, and another went on to say that the University is “easily persuaded… to cancel events and speakers, rather than stand its ground for varied free speech”.
So which is it? Does our University protect people or shut down debate?
Fancies of free speech often go on to criticise stances which value wellbeing in tandem with valuing free speech, as one of our respondents pointed out. Another noted that the YUSU Media Charter interferes with student media, as it requires all content to be proofed by YUSU before it can be published.
People hate being challenged. That’s the beauty of free speech; the ability to debate institutionalised ideas. Unfortunately, freedom of speech does not guarantee that the way you are expressing your beliefs is truly freeing. It should enable free debate. Free debate means respecting each other’s welfare and right to life. If discussing something in a certain way puts people’s lives in danger, then the lives come first and the discussion must be recreated in a way that is less damaging, but still conducts the uncomfortable conversations needed. Sure, the University made a mistake in the way it communicated the cancellation of IMD, but surely its refusal to host Milo Yiannopoulos was not a mistake? Yiannopoulos and the Pro-Life society exist on different planes. One intends to offend and hurt, the other represents a view within confines of YUSU society restrictions with an agreement not to be barbaric like those who harass people outside abortion clinics.
If you believe free speech should allow for harassment, then I hope, for your sake, that someone’s there to speak for you if your right to life is ever thrown into question.