Behind the University Free Speech ‘Crisis’

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Photograph by Karoly Lorentey via Flickr

A search of the phrase “university free speech” would bring back results that said free speech in at UK universities is nearly non-existent, at least according to the first three results, all from the online magazine Spiked, a self-proclaimed ‘Free Speech’ proponent. As of 2015, Spiked began releasing what they call the ‘Free Speech University Rankings’. Using a traffic light system – Green, Amber, Red – to classify University Administration, Students Unions, and Institution (the two combined) overall in regards to their policies that affect free speech. While the 2017 rankings have not been released, SCAN looked into the external politics of Spiked, and the broader agenda within the free speech ranking system in anticipation for Lancaster’s next ranking, which has previously been Red for LUSU, Amber for the University,and Red for the institution as a whole.

Spiked began out of the remains from the online magazine LM (formerly Living Marxism) after losing a libel case with Britain’s Independent Television News in 2000. Along with much of the staff, longtime supporters of LM moved over to Spiked, including the right-wing, corporate front groups and think tanks such as the Hudson Institute and Centre for Global Food Issues. It has also received sponsorship from the telecommunication industry such as BT and Orange, and the Mobile Operators Association to host “debates” to downplay concerns of the impact of mobile phones on health and the environment.

Current editor of Spiked Brendan O’Neill is a self-proclaimed “defender of enlightenment thought” has opposed the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and labelled opposition to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 visit to the UK as intolerant fearmongering. In addition, he is connected with the Australian free-market think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, Australia’s first neo-liberal think tank who has come under repeated for not releasing the names of its donors despite it’s tax-deductible status under the 1997 Income Tax Assessment Act.

O’Neill was also a keynote speaker for the pro-Israeli advocacy organisation StandWithUs. The organisation enjoys close ties with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and receives a growing budget, standing over $9 million, which goes towards funding student activities on campuses and, in particular, organising opposition to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – a movement against the Israeli state over violence and occupation of Palestine) movement. Spiked has consistently opposed to BDS movements, specifically on university campuses, citing it as anti-academic speech and anti-free speech.

Conflict with protest is a common theme for Spiked free speech. In their manifesto for free speech, Spiked demands there must be “no mob pressure on people to conform to modern orthodoxies.” One such example of “mob pressure” cited by Spiked is the protests against the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen to the Oxford Union debating society in 2015.

Spiked complained that those wanting to listen to Le Pen were “besieged by a violent mob,” with Tom Slater describing the protests as “illiberal and patronising.” Le Pen was to speak on “Western values.” The Anti-Fascist demonstrator held a protest of over 300 people, requiring security forces to delay the event by over an hour. The Guardian reported that demonstrators outside were bitter that she had been asked to address the Union. “This isn’t about freedom of speech – she has the right to express her views; no one is trying to silence her,But that doesn’t mean we have to invite her here to give an hour-long talk and bring her bigoted, divisive politics into our community. Fascism has only ever been beaten when good people mobilise against it. Not by inviting it to dinner.”said Barnaby Raine, a second-year history and politics student and one of the protest organisers.

These conflicting views of ‘free speech’ are the heart of the conflict between Spiked and student movements, specifically the NUS backed “No Platform for Fascists” policy that places so many of the UK’s universities and Student Unions on Spiked’s “Red” list of free speech. Many have criticised the anti-protest stance of the Spiked free speech as placing it in direct opposition to student voice, as many students, specifically underrepresented and liberation groups are unable to access formal opposition and protest allows all students to voice opinions.

Lancaster’s officers for the past years have expressed their feelings that a “Red” ranking by Spiked implies not that free speech is limited, but that the university and Student’s Union has worked to create a space where all voices can be heard and respected. The recent activities and protest around fees, the continuation of the “No Platform” policy, as well as the addition of an Equality and Diversity Policy to the LUSU bye-law suggest that Lancaster is in for another year of being classed as ‘anti-free speech’ by Spiked.