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Censorship on the campus... from the daft to the disturbing

By Paul Connolly

Published 22/01/2016

Queen's University
Queen's University

Readers may remember the Belfast Telegraph reporting last year how Queen's University had managed to get itself into a bit of a twist over free speech.

Due to "security concerns" the university cancelled a conference organised to discuss the fallout from the jihadist attack at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris that claimed the lives of 12 people.

Of course, one of the biggest pieces of fallout from a massacre at a magazine is the issue of free speech itself. The irony of the ban was not lost on campaigners and participants.

In the teeth of the controversy Queen's took succour in a risk assessment and reversed the decision - an embarrassing climbdown, but the right thing to do given that it had backed itself into a reputational dead-end.

It isn't just the university authorities, however, who are quick to censor. In November 2013 Queen's Students' Union banned Robin Thicke's notoriously sexist song Blurred Lines - the first such ban in the union's history (a Students' Union on the campus can apparently be traced back to 1854).

Earlier the Students' Union had clamped down on a pro-life society over material it handed out.

Those chickens came home to roost this week, as the Telegraph reported, when Queen's and the Students' Union were graded 'red' in a survey of free speech at university campuses across the UK. The survey, in an online magazine called Spiked, is a serious piece of work that has been widely reported.

It was surprising, to say the least, that neither the university nor the Students' Union would respond to the accusations of censorship when the survey's results were put to them by the Belfast Telegraph.

I would have thought the university at least would have taken the opportunity to underline its role as a beacon of light in a Northern Ireland, often seen as being parochial and divided. QUB isn't alone, of course: Twenty other students' unions banned Blurred Lines, and according to the Spiked survey, UK institutions have enacted some 148 bans or actions in three years, with most of these - 125 - put into place by students' unions.

Now, I would argue that censorship by university authorities is more serious than by students' unions.

But even the latter are disturbing: young people should know better, and students must beware the unintended consequences of political correctness.

The survey shows that most cases of censorship involved serious subjects including Israel, transgender issues, lad culture, radical Islam and the ethical investment movement.

Of particular concern are bans and clampdowns on anti-abortion literature and organisations, some of which have been labelled "hate groups".

Some of the censorship is just plain daft: banning The Sun newspaper, for example, or "offensive hand gestures".

Edinburgh University Students' Association's "safe space policy" explains what hand gestures are allowed: "Gestures indicating agreement are permissible, if these gestures are generally understood and not used in an intimidating manner... applause is acceptable when a motion is passed only, not if a motion fails to pass..."

The trustee board of Swansea University Students' Union, in its wisdom, voted to ban the Swansea Student Pole Fitness Society after concluding it was "inextricably linked to the multi-million-pound sex industry".

Best of all is the ban on sombreros at the University of East Anglia Students' Union. These are "racist", apparently.

Racist hats. Whatever will they think of next?

Belfast Telegraph

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