by Robyn Banks
Content warning: mentions sexual harassment
This month, Spiked launched their newest Freedom of Speech University Rankings for 2018. The fourth edition of the rankings, which started in 2015, are an ‘assessment’ of freedom of speech on our campuses. Spiked’s methodology is simplistic. They look at the policies and actions of both universities and their students’ unions (SUs), ranging from the no-platforming of controversial speakers to their codes of conduct. They then give each uni and each SU a rank of red, amber or green, and give an overall ranking to each institution based on these two scores.
In this years rankings Spiked announced their belief that 55% of campuses now ‘actively censor free speech’. Norwich’s own UEA is one such institution. The University has received an amber rating for its policies on restricting offensive posters and leaflets, and because its definition of harassment includes “the ridiculing of racial, ethnic or cultural differences”. The SU, on the other hand, has received a red ranking because of its Never OK policy towards sexual harassment, its policy not to sell The Sun and The Daily Star and the now infamous event known as Sombrero-gate (which, contrary to most reporting and Spiked’s own assertions, was not a blanket ban on the wearing of the titular headgear).
Despite their lofty moralistic rhetoric, it’s clear that Spiked have an agenda to push through the creation of these rankings. Their hope is that universities will capitulate to their binary understanding of freedom of speech, and drop policies like these in order to attain a green ranking. However, the way they assemble and discuss the issues around free speech is fraught with bad journalistic practice, and serves to undermine their project as well as revealing its unethical basis.
Spiked either don’t understand the need for change, or worse, they are fighting against that change
In their assessment of UEA we see them bring up past actions like Sombrero-gate time and time again. Whilst this would have been relevant for the 2016 rankings, it is no longer relevant or even contemporary for this years’ rankings. What it demonstrates is that in their ‘research’ of the student union they have lazily fixated on past actions instead of actually looking at the present.
More dangerously, Spiked remove all the context of actions of policies in their presentation of the rankings. For example, the only justification given for listing UEA SU’s Never OK policy as ‘amber’ was because its definition of sexual harassment includes as examples “Wolf-whistling, catcalling, inappropriate sexual comments, sexually based… jokes, songs”. This presentation bluntly ignores the reasons for the existence of the policy. Sexual harassment at university is a serious issue and its incredibly important that we work to challenge and change the culture that allows it to thrive on our campuses. By listing it in this way, Spiked attempt to undermine all that this policy represents as well as refusing the acknowledge the good that it does for the UEA community. More sinisterly, this also has effect of reinforcing the sick ideology that gives rise to epidemic sexual harassment, under the guise of freedom of speech. Clearly, Spiked either don’t understand the need for change, or worse, they are fighting against that change, disregarding the rights and wellbeing of all those who have faced or are likely to face harassment during their time at university.
A final issue I have with Spiked rankings, and more widely with the freedom of speech debate, is the way in which people’s lived experiences are ignored. Spiked’s view of the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ is incredibly essentialist, reducing the issue to a binary of either freedom or censorship. Freedom of speech isn’t something that can be turned on and off like a light switch. The lived experience of each person shapes their view of what constitutes cultural appropriation or sexual harassment. This then effects how they may view the policies and actions of authoritative bodies as restrictions on their freedom of speech. There is complexity, individuality and nuance here – some people’s experience of relative freedom may convince them that any controls on their expression are pernicious, while for others those very controls act as forms of protection against oppressive forces. Spiked ignore this, aligning their supposedly universal idea of freedom of speech with the interests of the most privileged in our university communities. Judging an SU’s actions and policies against this essentialist, binary view demonstrates an unwillingness to work with others on actually understanding the need for these policies. This refusal to engage with and understand the lived experiences of others reveals the true level of ignorance on which these rankings are based.
Personally, I’m proud that UEA has received a red rating for what Spiked call ‘free speech’. This league table adds nothing constructive to the debates surrounding freedom of speech on our campuses, serving only their own narrative. Policies and actions such as the Never OK campaign, the decision not to sell The Sun and Daily Star and the discussions about cultural appropriation spurred by Sombrero-gate have helped to make the University and SU a much better place. We owe it at the very least to the community on our campus to continue making these improvements, regardless of what this flawed, hypocritical league table from Spiked suggests.
Featured image CC0 via Pixabay
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