Durham University and SU create “chilling environment for free speech,” survey claims

By Natasha Livingstone

Durham is among 45 UK universities that have intervened to discourage free speech, a controversial survey has claimed.

spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) categorises institutions into a traffic light system based on their intervention in freedom of expression on campus.

Durham is this year awarded an Amber rating, an improvement on last year’s Red ranking but which still denotes a university that has “chilled free speech through intervention”.

The survey specifically criticises the cancellation of the Trev’s Rugby Club ‘Thatcher vs Miners’ social in November 2017, as well as the University and Students’ Union’s “vague restrictions on ‘offensive’ material”.

As previously reported by Palatinate, spiked labelled Durham Red in 2017 for “banning and actively censoring ideas on campus,” highlighting the Students’ Union’s “outright ban on homophobic and transphobic speech,” the campus-wide discouragement of initiation ceremonies, and the 2015 cancellation of a speech by former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson.

Durham has not entirely escaped red flags this year, according to the magazine. The FSUR also ranks individual policies with the traffic light system.

spiked named the SU’s decision to hold compulsory sexual consent classes as Red, judging the policy as “hostile to free speech and free expression,” though this did not override the University’s overall ranking.

In response to the survey’s findings, University Secretary Jennifer Sewel told Palatinate: “Durham University is committed to freedom of expression within the law and encourages free expression and debate amongst our staff, students and visitors. This reflects our core values as a university.”

The University has a Code of Practice covering freedom of expression in relation to meetings or other activities, which can be found here.

President of Durham Students’ Union, Megan Croll, told Palatinate: “Our [Amber] rating is justified in the sense that we aren’t hostile to free speech, but we are careful to ensure a safe environment… My personal view is that we have a good balance, which I suppose the [Amber] rating reflects.

“In terms of targeting us for the zero tolerance to sexual harassment campaign, I find that quite ridiculous. I am proud that Durham is leading the way in tackling sexual violence and a zero tolerance approach is the only way to do that.

spiked have also marked us down for holding compulsory consent classes, which isn’t actually the case.”

She added: “I’m not personally of the opinion that the spiked campaign holds too much weight, particularly as it’s scored us based on information which is frankly inaccurate”.

Other Amber-rated universities include Cambridge, York and Birmingham. The FSUR judged most institutions as Red, for example criticising Oxford for forcing students to use transgender pronouns and banning an anti-abortion group.

Only seven universities, such as Buckingham and Hertfordshire, were awarded Green status, commended for “placing no significant restrictions on free speech”.

Jennifer Sewel, University Secretary, said: “Durham University is committed to freedom of expression within the law and encourages free expression and debate amongst our staff, students and visitors. This reflects our core values as a university.”

Photograph: dominic via Flickr

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