We got a ‘Red’ rating for UWE’s level of free speech but it’s not as bad as it seems

We were marked down for being against sexual harassment and discrimination

After looking at the criteria in deciding the Free Speech ranking of UWE, it really isn’t such steep criticism after all. The main contention with free speech the survey holds is the ‘Safer Spaces’ policy run by The Students’ Union in collaboration with the university. The Safer Space policy sets out to provide an “environment where students can express their views free from discrimination, harassment and bullying” and works to “respect our diverse population and take a zero tolerance approach to discrimination in any term” by setting up a way to report incidents resulting in “disciplinary action”. The main targets of censorship are comments that could be perceived as  “racist, sexist, homophobic, threatening or violent” or  “that could cause offence to a student with a disability”.

Spiked is a magazine that opposes all forms of censorship, including hate speech. If it isn’t physical abuse, it’s just ‘banter’ and ‘locker room talk’ . When you consider it, it feels difficult trying to strike a balance between excessive political correctness and creating a safe environment where those who might be subject to discrimination can breathe without the threat of harassment having preventative measures or no consequence. There’s a view that it’s counter-productive and almost fascist for institutions such as universities to take an ideological stance on certain issues, which is a good point. But the idea is that we would be incised if a university had the ability to shut down a non-violent protest for tuition fee increases, and should in turn be angry if they shut down an anti-Muslim rally (despite it promoting division and discrimination) because it infringes on our right to Free Speech too.

Oh no, we have a policy against sexual harassment

The university’s policies about this, however, do recognise that Freedom of Speech should be respected as well as “recognising its boundaries” – suggesting that extreme and overblown allegations against students for offensive speech won’t be met with undue repercussions. The university sets out that these policies don’t extend to “disagreeing with someone’s point of view”.  The University’s bullying, harassment and victimisation policies are also put in place in order to meet the requirements of the Government’s 2010 Equality Act that aims to reduce discrimination in workplace environments. This is also probably why most universities obtained a ‘Red’ ranking, and so few obtained ‘Green’.

The Freedom of Speech policies at the university, however, focus on external speakers and meetings. The process of approving an external speaker is bureaucratic and long-winded, and the university’s vice-chancellor has the ability to veto a speaker at his discretion which is problematic. The university suggests that this a measure in order to act in accordance with the the 2015 Counter Terrorism Act, but does work  to strike a “balance between concerns around extremism and concerns around censorship”, so its reasoning seems understandable if it is not misused.

Taken at face-value, the ranking could be taken as a criticism of the policies promoted by UWE. The president of the Union, Ahmd Emara, has been met with a level of both criticism and support. The debate around free speech and hate speech is a particularly contentious issue following the controversy and protests around Milo Yiannopoulos campus talks in America. But the free speech ranking system by spiked aligns with the magazine’s own political standpoint of  any level of political correctness equalling totalitarian control of students through policy. It is mainly a criticism of the university having zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and a procedure in place in the event of abuse and bullying occurring within the university. All the critiques read more like praise. We probably wouldn’t want Katie Hopkins giving a talking on racism on our campus either. But the issue is, if some people want it – should the university be able to shut it down? Rather than the issue at hand being that the university “should be doing more” to combat discrimination and harassment, it is probably preferable to most that they’re doing too much.