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York keeps ‘amber’ rating in Spiked’s 2017 free speech rankings

Image credit: Spiked
Image credit: Spiked
Image credit: Spiked

The University of York and its students’ union have received ‘amber’ ratings for their commitments to freedom of speech on campus, according to an online media outlet’s 2017 rankings.

Spiked awarded the University of York and the University of York Students’ Union (YUSU) amber ratings as part of Spiked‘s 2017 Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Surveying 115 universities, spiked described an “environment that chills free speech” at the University of York.

The website cited the university’s rules against “offensive verbal or practical jokes” and the cancellation of International Men’s Day, as well as YUSU’s sexual harassment policy’s clause on “unwelcome sexual gestures or innuendos” and its consent classes for new undergraduate students, for awarding York an amber rating.

With only seven universities awarded a ‘green’ rating, spiked claims that censorship on campus is on the rise, especially from university administrations themselves.

Elsewhere in the city, York St. John University and its union received ‘red’ ratings, indicating the existence of an “environment that is hostile to free speech.” York St. John University forbids the presence of “in the forms of written materials, graffiti, songs or speeches” deemed homophobic or transphobic; its students’ union maintains a no-platforming policy and does not permit the sale of the Sun and the Daily Star on campus.

Tom Slater, Deputy Editor of spikedwrote on Saturday that conditions for freedom of speech at universities across the country are worsening:

“… At some of Britain’s most prestigious universities – once interested in probing perceived wisdom and in pursuing truth – the oldest and newest orthodoxies in the book are being ringfenced from criticism. ‘Transphobic propaganda’ is banned at eight universities, and 43 per cent hold religion and belief policies that guard against offending faith groups. And more often than not, these stem from university administrations rather than [students’ unions]”.

York received an amber rating in 2016 also, prompting the campus newspaper Nouse to organise a survey on free speech for students. 64% of its respondents did not agree with the claim that YUSU upholds freedom of speech on campus “very well”; most respondents believed that the cancellation of International Men’s Day that year was an example of campus censorship.

Ben Leatham, the 2015/2016 YUSU President, told Nouse that he was “committed to ensuring a standardised approach is established whereby the student papers are autonomous to write what they want within the law and any speaker is allowed to come and speak on campus provided no laws are broken.”

David Duncan, the University of York’s Registrar, told The Yorker:

“I do not believe this rating accurately reflects the situation at York. As a University, we are committed to upholding freedom of speech. We encourage the expression of a diversity of views and invite a wide range of speakers to talk on campus.

Of course, we ask all members of the University community to treat each other with courtesy and respect, and not to express themselves in ways that others might find deliberately offensive; but this is compatible with our commitment to free speech.
We also work with YUSU and its many clubs and societies to ensure that freedom of expression is upheld in both letter and spirit”.
Alex Lusty, the YUSU Activities officer, commented:
“YUSU has always and will always support free speech and freedom of the press. As a former editor of a student publication, I am personally invested in this. However, I find spiked’s ratings to not only be inaccurate but frankly insulting. Despite claiming to be the 2017 rankings, the publication can only name incidents from 2014 and 2015 when justifying York’s rating. Furthermore, the claim that a policy of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment constrains freedom of speech is offensive; both to the victims of sexual harassment and supporters of free speech, such as myself. These ratings are not a true reflection of freedom of speech, but are a project of self-aggrandisement aimed at creating controversy where none exists.”

The York Student Think Tank organised a discussion with editors of the ratified student media to discuss the 2016 rankings. Spiked‘s free speech ranking system was dubbed “crude at best and only a rough measure of free speech on campus” by Richard Crawshaw, then-chairman of the Think Tank.

Celebrations of International Men’s Day were historically cancelled in late 2015 and the University chose not to mark the occasion in 2016, though a student organised his own event to mark the day.

Spiked was launched in 2000, following the end of its predecessor, Living MarxismDescribing itself as a “metaphorical missile against misanthropy”, its content concerns “reason, liberty, progress, economic growth, choice, conviction and thought experiments about the future”.

The Yorker has also contacted Millie Beach, the President of YUSU, for comment.