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Sussex restricts free speech, survey claims

The University of Sussex has ‘some of the most stringent, broad restrictions on speech and expression’ in the country, according to a university free speech survey.

Spiked’s 2016 Free Speech University placed Sussex in the worst category for freedom of speech for the second year running, with 55% of UK universities being given a ‘red’ ranking, up from 41% last year.

The survey described the University of Sussex and the Students’ Union as ‘collectively [creating] a hostile environment to free speech’, with the SU being given a red ranking for its zero tolerance, safe space and no platform policies, as well as the Union’s endorsement of the BDS movement – approved by 68% in a referendum last year. University management was ranked amber, citing their policies towards bullying and harassment and posters as reasons for the given grade, as well as curtailing a student protest under false claims in 2013.

55% of UK universities were given a ‘red’ ranking up from 41% last year. 35% of universities, including Brighton, were graded ‘amber’, and only 10% ‘green’, both down from 39% and 20% respectively. Only one of the Russell Group universities, Southampton, was given a ‘green’ ranking.

Abraham Baldry, President of Sussex’s Student Union, defended the SU’s policies, saying: “I’m proud that students want to be part of a community that doesn’t support bullying or harassment and wants debate to take place in an environment free of aggressive, intimidating or discriminatory behaviour. As a former president of the university’s debating society, I believe that the exchange and challenge of ideas is hugely important. This does not extend to providing speakers with a track record of inciting of racial hatred with access to union resources to spread their ideas.”

He also added that: “The policies cited by Spiked were all voted for by students, and it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that we should curtail students’ rights to decide things democratically in the name of ‘free speech’”.

Tom Slater, Deputy Editor of Spiked, said that: “[USSU’s] outright ban on racist, fascist and homophobic speech… are significant and unnecessary restrictions on free expression, and the underlying message  of it all is deeply patronising. Apparently, Sussex students are either too dumb, or too vulnerable, to listen to offensive, bigoted views without absorbing them or collapsing into a sobbing heap”.

“If students are serious about challenging prejudice, censoring bigots is the worst thing you can do. It gives their views a glamour they don’t deserve and it pushes their ideas underground. Censorship merely buries students’ heads in the sand – it stops them from arguing against, and defeating, the ideas they claim to so detest”.

In response to the survey, a spokesperson for the University of Sussex said: “Universities such as Sussex are and should be open and critical spaces where ideas can be exchanged and challenged freely. We will be talking with students and the Students’ Union abut these rankings and looking at the points they raise.

“The policies of the Students’ Union are all debated and voted on by our students. We strongly support the rights of students to have a say over issues that affect them.”

The University also denounced Spiked’s criticism of its bullying and harassment policy saying: “It is curious that Spiked deemed our policy of protecting staff members and students from racist bullying as well as verbal and sexual harassment to be negative – we feel quite the opposite and will always act in ways to rule out oppressive and illegal behaviour”.

Slater countered that: “[any] suggestion that our stance encourages or endorses offensive speech is nonsense. There are two fundamentals of free speech. First, just because you allow someone to speak doesn’t mean you endorse what they’re saying. Second, people are rational beings, capable of making up their own minds and coming to the right conclusions.

“The idea that you have to censor offensive ideas, lest everyone be automatically switched on to them, reflects just how misanthropic and snobby campus censors are.”

The findings come almost a year after the Students’ Union caused controversy after initially planning not to invite UKIP to a general election debate; prompting an opinion poll where 70% of students voted in favour of their inclusion, resulting in a U-turn by the Union.

Originally published at thoughtsfromdangreen.wordpress.com

Daniel Green

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