Spiked’s Free Speech uni rankings punish unis for banning anti-Semitism

Why would anyone take these irrelevant rankings seriously?


Free speech is in crisis at universities. Censorship reigns on campus, and killjoy student authorities restrict everything. Speaking your mind is only allowed at a measly 6 per cent of universities. Or so Spiked would have you believe.

Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings have been going for four years. They rank universities in the UK on whether they’re hostile to free speech or not, and are taken as evidence of a crisis by tabloids and broadsheets alike.

Their 2018 Free Speech University Rankings paint a grim and repressive picture of literally the biggest plague on student life. Labelling unis and their policies as red, amber, or green, based on how much they hate free speech, the rankings give 55 per cent a red ranking, warning of a war on students.

Spiked, a website which serves as a safe space for right-wing contrarians, took valuable time out of their day jobs explaining why #MeToo is actually misogynistic and why pay equality at the BBC is a bad idea to tackle the burning issue of free speech at uni. Their traffic light system and wealth of examples create the impression of unis all across the country where nobody can say anything any more.

And, as they get invited to talk to Parliamentary inquiries, commissioned op-eds in The Sun, and appear on the TV and radio, you'd be forgiven for thinking Spiked had a point with their cutting, relevant, driven analysis. The problem is, the rankings are wack. Let me explain why.

The first major problem is the policies Spiked list as hurting free speech. A Leeds policy which resolves to "take firm and decisive action against any members of the university demonstrating anti-Semitism," is, according to Spiked, hostile to free speech. Policies at Newcastle, Southampton, and others which allow the uni to remove transphobic propaganda from university premises receive the same red ranking. Anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies also apparently chill free speech – a stance which neatly ignores the way that bullying and harassment happens. And including "Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment" policies which guard against unwelcome sexual invitations just seems like inelegant trolling when your site also tweets this:

The second problem is the selective way Spiked make examples fit their narrative. Cardiff University are listed as having a red action for "attempts to stop Germaine Greer speaking". What Spiked fail to mention is the university stepping in to ensure the talk went ahead, protecting free speech, with Cardiff's VC saying: "I stand by the decision to hold it".

Durham University are listed as being hostile to free speech for banning a Thatcher vs Miners social, which welcomed the idea of a "few working-class beating bobbies". Luckily, Spiked provide a link to an article as evidence, which actually confirms it was the students who cancelled their own event.

Sussex are marked down after the SU apparently "postpones UKIP speaker's talks over Safe Space fears". Inconveniently, the first sentence of Spiked's link, serving as evidence of the horrible and mean SU, literally confirms it was the students who cancelled their own event.

The third big old problem is Spiked's desire to shoehorn things that materially aren't free speech into the rankings, casting their purview as wide as whatever "thought reform" is.

Consent classes count as a red mark against universities. Without getting into the nitty gritty of whether unis should respect students' autonomy and let them work consent out for themselves, or teach them how to navigate something which isn't exactly trial and error, it's hardly a free speech issue. Instead, it just seems to be part of Spiked's wider revulsion against consent classes. For reference, the following is a real sentence from Spiked: "Teaching men not to rape is patronising and, quite frankly, useless. Why not extend this logic and teach Muslims not to bomb buildings?"

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Quick test: Newcastle SU decide to stop supporting t-shirt pub crawls because they reflect badly on the union, and to not have them advertised inside the union building as it looks like they've organised them. Is this a free speech issue? Trick question, yes, yes it is, and it's a red one.

Oxford have stopped their students joining secretive societies. Not a free speech issue, but hey, put it in anyway guys.

A grain of truth is all that's needed to twist the fringe issue of free speech into something massive, generating column inches, new student regulators, and gammon ire in the Mail Online comments section.

Spiked's method takes random policies, unrelated incidents, and students cancelling their own talks. We actually did a survey of 1,000 students, and asked what they think about free speech. The results were fascinating.

Whilst a majority of our respondents think free speech is under threat at university, and that openly homophobic, racist, and transphobic speakers should be allowed to speak on campus, take straight guys out of the equation and it flips to the exact opposite.

If you wanted an indicator of the kind of person who cares about free speech very intently, either look at the byline, or I can show you the clearest example of self-selection bias I've seen – the responses to our survey were 89 per cent white, 64 per cent male, and most commonly sciences students. Giving a fuck about free speech is an incredibly privileged thing to be able to do. Three times more students said mental health was the most important issue facing them than said free speech.

Spiked's particular examples show a blindness to this. It's a lot easier to think anti-sexual harassment policies and consent classes are intellectual free speech issues, rather than useful safeguards, if you're never going to be the beneficiary of them.

It's time everyone did themselves a favour and stopped taking seriously rankings which punish unis for taking down transphobic graffiti, banning anti-Semitism, and blaming them when students cancel their own talks.