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

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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

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

  • The consent classes we (Sexpression) held contained multiple interactive breakout rooms and activities where at any point you could vocalise your views. If the ‘free speech’ community doesn’t want to openly declare in their views in these spaces, then this is a reflection on us no longer providing a safe space for anti-abortion and victim blaming statements to be made.

    This is not a evidence for the restriction of free speech;
    This is evidence that the dominant culture of Durham university is shifting. Views which force the sexual violence survivor to be accountable for the act of the perpetrator are becoming less common in open discussions. Anti abortion and anti-consent statements made in consent workshops, have become socially unacceptable. we should applaud this.

    The practical benefit of providing training which gives freshers the nonverbal cues to spot non consent in their partners and conceptual framework where they can assess the capacity of their partner to consent more concretely will necessarily lower rates of sexual violence due to the ignorance of the perpetrator. This benefit is more significant than the potential harm of mitigating the in-group safety felt by so called ‘free speech activists’.

    And if you are an advocate of free speech and you want to talk to me (as Sexpression Durham President) please drop me a message on FB or Instagram because I’m open to discussion. (@am.berhoney)

    Reply

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