The UK Takes the Campus Free-Speech Debate to New Heights — by Banning Tabloids

The UK Takes the Campus Free-Speech Debate to New Heights — by Banning Tabloids

Why you should care

Because if you think the argument over statues is intense, get a load of this.

Freedom of speech. Although many thought the debate surrounding it was largely settled in the 18th century, here it is again. In fact, over the past couple of years, it’s never been too far away — especially if you live near a college campus. From buildings named after slave owners to protests of controversial speakers, from culturally insensitive Halloween costumes to the concept of the “safe space,” a once-clear concept is now the much-maligned subject of both haughty columns in The New York Times and hilarious South Park satire. But for those of you whose small talk has yet to feature philosophizing about the nature of liberty and oppression, fear not. You’re just in time for the next wave of campus politics, courtesy of the British.

In recent months a number of university student unions across the U.K. have voted to ban the sale of certain right-wing tabloid newspapers in campus shops. In December, the elected student representatives at Queen Mary University of London voted to ban the sale of The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express following similar moves at Plymouth University and City University of London. In fact, the libertarian online magazine Spiked, which compiles the annual Free Speech University Rankings, counts 20 campuses with some form of newspaper ban as of January 2017 (student media franchise The Tab puts the number at 26). The Sun and Daily Mail are the most frequent targets — and they also happen to be the first and second most widely read daily newspapers in the U.K.

The timing of the bans is no coincidence. Last year’s Brexit vote shocked liberal elites.

The text of the motion passed at City University, home to one of the country’s leading journalism departments, cites the newspapers’ history of publishing articles that are “sexist” and “Islamophobic” and that “demonize refugees and minorities” and “stir up racial tensions and hatred just to sell papers.” Indeed, both The Sun and Daily Mail were named and shamed last year by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance for employing “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology.”

For instance, in 2015, an infamous Sun column by controversial personality Katie Hopkins likened refugees to “cockroaches,” leading to condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. That same year, the paper published a now widely disproven claim that 1 in 5 British Muslims harbors “sympathy for jihadis.” And, until two years ago, it published images of topless women on Page 3. “I think [the students] do have a point,” says Eric Heinze, professor of law at Queen Mary University. “It’s tempting to say [the Daily Mail] is just the Daily Hate.” And while Heinze argues the student unions have every right to remove items from sale — they are private entities, after all — he nevertheless maintains that the ban is “problematical because of … this tendency to pull away from the world [and] not trust people to form their own decisions.”

The timing of the bans is no coincidence. Last year’s Brexit vote shocked liberal elites, while the right-wing tabloids, with their primarily working-class readerships, had long maintained an anti-Europe stance. “Whenever we see democracies doing unsavory or unwise things, our instinct is always to curb parts of democracy [or] to prefer elite democracy over popular democracy,” Heinze says. “That’s always the wrong intuition.”

Indeed, “something that’s being sold to millions of people is something that we have to engage with, whether we like the content or not,” says Suzanne Franks, head of City University’s journalism department and a critic of the ban on her campus. The controversy on the City campus eventually led to a countermotion that negated the ban.

On the Queen Mary campus, the backlash included the university’s Free Speech Society giving out copies of The Sun. “It’s extremely worrying and very Orwellian when you start getting into the realms of banning what other people can read freely,” says student and Free Speech Society member Emily Dinsmore, who helps conduct campus free-speech research for Spiked. Dinsmore criticizes the politics behind her student union — only 13 people voted in favor of the ban, representing a student body of almost 20,000, she says. The union “only stands for diversity when it’s not diversity of opinion,” she argues. (The Queen Mary Students’ Union did not respond to OZY’s request for comment.)

Of course, the free speech debate here comes from a markedly different place than it does in the U.S. After all, in the U.K., as in several other European countries — but notably not in the U.S. — hateful speech based upon ethnicity, nationality, disability, religion or sexual orientation is illegal. And the tabloid bans aren’t the first time that students’ interpretations of the limits of free speech have caused controversy. The National Union of Students established the principle of “no platforming” to prevent fascist or racist groups from being given a forum. The principle was even employed, albeit unsuccessfully, to block a lecture by prominent feminist Germaine Greer, who was accused of being “transphobic.” Furthermore, in 2013, more than 20 campus student unions voted to ban the song “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke, from being played on union-controlled property and at union-hosted events due to what were considered misogynistic and rape-apologist lyrics.

As for the newspaper bans, the actions are largely symbolic, says Heinze. At Queen Mary, only two campus shops stocked the papers, each with sales in the low single digits, estimates Dinsmore. Meanwhile at City, no vendors were selling the tabloids on campus at all. And, “let’s face it,” says Heinze, “in the age of the internet, the Daily Mail is all over the place. For better or for worse, you can’t avoid it.”

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