Free speech defends marginalised voices

The University of Edinburgh is in the red for freedom of speech, as claimed by online magazine spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) project. According to the project, which originated from spiked’s ‘Down With Campus Censorship!’ campaign last year, a red ranking means that Edinburgh “has banned and actively censored ideas on campus”.

Apparently, EUSA’s Safe Space Policy, campaign to end lad banter and rape culture on campus, a ban on playing Robin Thicke’s infamous ‘Blurred Lines’ or selling The Sun in union buildings, as well as the university’s Trans Equality Policy, are all ways in which Edinburgh University and EUSA create a ‘hostile environment’ for free speech. Yet, as many students and EUSA staff have pointed out, to look at these regulations in such a way is to misunderstand their point entirely, and to misunderstand what freedom of speech is for.

spiked’s project put Oxford University in the red for asking that trigger warnings for sensitive content be used in Oxford University Student Union council meetings. Warwick University is ranked red because their student union has an Equal Opportunities Policy which does not allow “racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic” artists to be contracted by the union, clubs and societies. For spiked, then, freedom of speech is to give a university and union-sanctioned platform for hate speech, and to disregard the welfare of its students.

If it is considered bad that Edinburgh University and EUSA, as well as other institutions in the red – or even amber, which means that somewhere “has chilled free speech through intervention” – are working towards the safety of its students and tackling discrimination, then so be it. A red ranking means, if anything, that we are trying to uphold freedom of speech by ensuring that vulnerable and marginalised voices are protected and heard while not giving a platform for views and actions which propagate oppression and harm.

Just because EUSA shops won’t sell The Sun does not mean you can’t read it on campus: it means that this xenophobic, homophobic, sexist and racist tabloid is not endorsed by EUSA. Just because ‘Blurred Lines’ is not played in campus buildings does not mean you can’t listen to it in your headphones if you really want to hear a song which condones the ignoring of consent. Asking that you “think of a person as being the gender that they want you to think of them”, as part of the Trans Equality Policy, is not to censor anybody: it simply means you respect someone’s gender, call them by the pronouns they ask for, and are not prejudiced towards someone if they happen not to be cisgender.  If trying to end rape culture on campus is an infringement of the right to freedom of speech, then it might be better to be censored rather than be at risk of sexual harassment on a regular basis.

The FSUR rankings only add to this misunderstanding of freedom of speech by suggesting that trying to tackle oppression and discrimination on campus is about censorship, when it is actually about ensuring that voices are heard and respected, where they otherwise might not be in other parts of society. Freedom of speech, in some rhetoric, is becoming a twisted term, used to defend oppression when it is supposed to be fighting it. If spiked so desires, it can lead a project which does nothing for those for whom freedom of speech is an especially important right. The University of Edinburgh, however, is not a part of this, and we should be proud of that.

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