The Free Speech University Rankingss (FSUR) 2016 have given St Andrews an Amber Free Speech rating.
The University Ranking for Free Speech analyses the level of free speech at British universities. A survey of 115 universities shows that 90 per cent of universities censor speech in 2016 in comparison to 80 per cent in 2015.
Run by Spiked Magazine, the survey’s website states that they examine “the policies and actions of universities and students’ unions” and “provide a detailed, annual insight into the state of free speech, debate and expression in the British academy.”
This ranking uses the traditional Traffic Light System, Red: ‘Bans and Actively Censors Ideas on Campus’. Amber: ‘Has Chilled Free Speech Through Intervention’. Green: ‘Has A Hands-off Approach to Free Speech’.
Through using the Traffic Light System, the ranking gains support for its simplistic and straight forward design.
Since the publication of the university rankings, the ‘Down with the Censorship campaign’ to stand up against the restrictions has been launched.
However, reasons behind the free speech restrictions and censorship have been justified by as necessary to meet universities and student unions’ aims to protect students from possible harassment on issues regarding sexuality, race and religion and the need to create “safe spaces” where students can feel safe from physical or psychological harm based on their identity.
The National Union of Students is committed to the creation of safe spaces and the idea has been adopted by many student unions across the country. Its deputy president, Richard Brooks, recently said: “Student unions are often the only place where students can be themselves, a place where they can think about things and challenge ideas and thoughts in a safe environment.”
Jo Boon, convenor of the St Andrews University feminist society told The Saint of the need to balance the right to free speech with the safety and wellbeing of students.
“The feminist society is able to continue with a broad range of excellent, and sometimes controversial, activities, debates and campaigns,” she said.
She then added; “However, there are examples where students may feel less comfortable speaking out on controversial topics.
“Recent examples include: Bob Lambert’s resignation, the lack of gender neutral bathrooms and experiences of sexual violence.
“Students must be respectful of one another, careful not to make libelous claims and considerate of the impact of their words but able to speak out on issues of concern to them.
“Freedom of speech is a basic human right that should be upheld within a university environment.”
Former University of St Andrews Principal, Louise Richardson who recently moved to the University of Oxford spoke on the issue of free speech at universities in the wake of the Cecil Rhodes Statue Campaign.
The campaign gained huge media coverage to bring down the statue of the ‘founding father’ of apartheid in South Africa from the university’s campus.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, she stated that “We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable and what it is about those ideas that they object to”
Jackie Ashkin, the Students’ Association Officer for Racial Equality told The Saint that she believes that this survey shows that St Andrews must do more to promote and protect free speech in universities “I think it’s good that we’ve come up on the radar – we’re traditionally a very conservative institution, but I think students are very aware of the coming storm,” she said. Going on, Ms Ashkin commented: “There are a lot of American students on campus who have expressed their relief to me over being in the UK and away from really horrific attempts at censoring ideas.
“University is a place for us to be confronted with ideas and people who make us uncomfortable. “Cecil Rhodes, like very many of the people that we venerate to this day, was not perfect by a long shot, and taking down his statue I think would, for the sake of consistency, mean that any number of statues in institutions across the UK would need to be removed.
“Free speech is a precedent that we need to actively be considering and negotiating in our everyday interactions, because it’s really important that people are able to speak their minds, whether we agree with them or not.
The Students’ Association Director of Representation, Joe Tantillo, expressed his confusion to The Saint as to why St Andrews rating had been lowered, “St Andrews’ lowered rating is attributed to policies that were in place in 2015 and even before, so in the case of the Zero Tolerance policy to sexual harassment; I don’t understand why our rating has been lowered from Green to Amber.
“There have been no official changes to any of these policies.” Mr Tantillo also went on to say, “St Andrews is a place that has been very open when it comes to free speech.
“We don’t have a no platform policy for speakers the way NUS affiliated unions do, even for radical speakers. Our councils voted against banning the song Blurred Lines, which the article in question alluded to as a form of censorship.
“All in all, I would say that we do a good job of allowing people to speak their minds, particularly in an academic sense.
“It seems whoever created this rating system has a problem with our sexual harassment policy.
If their argument is that people should simply be allowed to sexually harass each other for the good of free speech, well I would have to strongly disagree with them.”