Durham University and Students’ Union “hostile to free speech,” report finds

spiked magazine ranks Durham alongside 63.5% of universities that have “banned and actively censored ideas on campus”


A survey of British universities undertaken by spiked magazine claims that Durham University and its Students’ Union “collectively create an environment that is hostile to free speech.”

In the online magazine’s third annual Free Speech University Rankings, spiked categorises 115 UK universities into a traffic-light system, whereby higher education institutions are ranked Red, Amber or Green according to their policies relating to freedom of expression.

Durham University was given Amber ratings over the previous two surveys, but has now been assigned a Red ranking, which denotes an institution that “has banned and actively censored ideas on campus.”

The magazine criticises the Students’ Union in particular for its “outright ban on homophobic and transphobic speech,” alongside the campus-wide discouragement of initiation ceremonies and the 2015 cancellation of a debate invitation to former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson.

In receiving a Red ranking, Durham is graded alongside 63.5% of the universities surveyed; of the remainder, 30.5% are ranked as Amber, which describes a campus that “has chilled free speech through intervention,” and 6% as Green, the grading reserved for universities that have “a hands-off approach to free speech.”

When asked for comment, a University spokesperson said: “The University is committed to freedom of expression within the law and we encourage freedom of expression and debate amongst staff, students and visitors. The University has a Code of Practice relating to freedom of expression in relation to meetings or other activities.

“This [Code of Practice] states that the University will seek to uphold its commitment to freedom of expression within the law, and will only impose conditions where legitimate concerns regarding the legality of the event and/or the safety of participants are justified.

“The University’s duty to secure freedom of expression within the law extends to the Students’ Union premises and for this reason the Code of Practice applies to activities that take place there.”

Wider reaction to the spiked survey has been diverse.

In a blog for the Huffington Post UK, Malia Bouattia, the President of the National Union of Students (NUS), was sceptical of the report, claiming that it generates a narrative on university safe spaces and no-platform policies that “could not be further from the truth.” Ms Bouattia also criticised the evidence upon which the report is based, arguing that “it takes no more than a simple anti-bullying policy to be declared an existential threat to the freedom of the individual.”

Meanwhile, Tom Harwood, a Durham NUS delegate whose election campaign late last year won the attention of the national media for its irreverent satire of Ms Bouattia’s organisation, commented: “This demotion for Durham is very worrying at a time when it is more crucial than ever to uphold a free and open exchange of ideas.” Mr Harwood also blamed the Students’ Union’s Red ranking on “their censoring NUS-like tendencies.”

The spiked report, which is based on an aggregated analysis of University and Students’ Union policies over a three-year period, coincidentally comes within days of controversy at the Durham Union Society over the Chinese Embassy’s request for one of the speakers, the human rights advocate Anastasia Lin, to be barred from addressing a debate.

It was also reported that over 500 people had signed an online petition similarly asking for Ms Lin, an actress and former Miss World contestant who has been declared a persona non grata by the Chinese authorities, to be silenced.

Photograph: drestwn via Creative Commons

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