Do Manchester’s universities have a freedom of speech problem?


The University of Manchester, MMU and The University of Salford all create a hostile environment for freedom of speech, according to Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings 2017.

The survey uses a traffic light system to rate 115 UK universities for policies which restrict freedom of speech. An institution which bans or actively censors ideas on campus is rated red, amber indicates that free speech has been moderated through intervention, whilst an institution where there are no regulations is given a green rating.

Ratings were allocated according to the policies of each university and its students’ union. Each institution was then given an overall rating.

Nearly two-thirds of the universities surveyed were found to ‘actively censor speech’ and almost one third ‘stifled speech through excessive regulation’.

All three Manchester-based universities were given an amber rating.  However, their students’ unions were all given a red rating, meaning that each institution was given a red rating overall.

The University of Manchester’s Dignity at Study and Work policy is flagged as restricting freedom of speech.

The University of Manchester students’ union has a student media code of conduct and a safe space policy which states that societies must refrain from language which may be ‘discriminatory’ or ‘promote or recruit to extremist ideologies or groups’.

It has banned the radical feminist Julie Bindel from speaking, suggesting that her views could be seen as transphobic and inciting hatred towards transgender students. Men’s rights activist Milo Yiannopoulos has also been banned and the union stopped selling copies of The Sun newspaper back in 2013. In 2015, it banned the display of copies of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Manchester Metropolitan University has a student code of conduct which requires students to refrain from behaviour ‘unreasonably offending others’ whilst its students’ union has a ‘no platform’ policy and ‘digital space house rules’ whereby it can remove online comments which may be deemed objectionable.

The University of Salford students’ union has a ‘zero tolerance to sexual harassment’ policy which includes the prohibition of innuendos and wolf-whistling. Its policy on managing external speakers has prevented visitors in the past expressing views which may be viewed as ‘insulting to other faiths or groups’.

University censorship is a controversial issue nationwide, with many students’ unions taking measures to ban speakers such as Germaine Greer due to her alleged transphobic views.

A spokesperson from the University of Manchester students’ union said that censorship is an appropriate reaction to views that may be damaging.

“The fact that the vast majority of universities are ranked as red shows how fluid the debate on freedom of speech is.

“The two students’ union policies which contribute to our red ranking prevent the promotion of views that are sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, disablist or otherwise discriminatory on the basis of a protected characteristic and ensure that societies or invited speakers do not promote or recruit to extremist ideologies or groups and refrain from using discriminatory language.

“It is therefore bizarre that Spiked seems to want to support people being able to be openly racially abusive, make homophobic comments and discriminate against people because of free speech.”

However, policies such as no platform areas and safe spaces – where speakers with controversial views can be banned – regularly come under criticism from those in favour of free speech. Professor Brian Cox of The University of Manchester has spoken out against the idea that there could be an intellectually ‘safe space’ and in favour of open debate in universities.

Not all students’ unions apply censorship more than their universities. The University of Bolton is rated amber but its students’ union has no policies which restrict freedom of speech and is rated green.


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