Published on November 20, 2013 | by Caroline Schmitt, Ruby Sigurdardottir, Catherine Van de Stouwe

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Academic freedom under threat?

Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke’s is one of the “offensive” songs banned by Student unions [Alice Russell]

In recent months there has been press coverage of student unions across the country issuing bans on “offensive” songs, T-shirts, societies and tabloid newspapers.

During a debate at Westminster last week, academics and politicians evaluated the “assault” on academic freedom through self-censorship on university campuses.

‘Academic Freedom in Illiberal Times’ pressed universities to stand firm against recent government suggestions of monitoring “extremist” behaviour.

Dennis Hayes, Professor of Education at the University of Derby and part of the panel, told ALN: “Ban nothing, criticise everything. That should be the motto of the academy. [Issuing bans] helps puff up the self-esteem of student politicians but really shows they do not know what universities are for.

“Censorious students are undermining the essence of the academy, where you could think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, as well as doing not just a little of what your parents said was undoable,” Hayes said.

Cambridge University students have sparked controversy this week when taking part in a “best bums” competition which feminists have described as “irresponsible and sexist”.

Five male and five female students sent nude photos of themselves to Cambridge’s student website The Tab, whose readers were then encouraged to vote for what they considered to be Cambridge’s best male and female bottoms of 2013.

Lauren Steele, Women’s Officer at Cambridge University Students’ Union, said: “The Tab should immediately remove the photos, publish an apology and mandate that all future publications cannot include the misuse and appropriation of women’s and other minorities’ bodies.”

Jack Rivlin, editor of The Tab, defended his decision to hold the competition on the website. Writing on Telegraph Blogs, he said: “(It’s) hardly Page Three. It’s not meant to be serious and it’s not meant to be journalism. It’s a few people getting their bottoms out.”

“Forget free choice, or the fact that some of us might actually want to bare our bums for other people’s enjoyment. That’s not allowed.”

Protection

SUARTS president Shelly Asquith defended efforts towards more protection from student unions: “It’s not about freedom of speech, it’s about protection from harassment. We as a union have a duty to provide care for those people that are at risk of being attacked. It’s about creating a safe space for these students.”

A campaign that aims to fight such harassment is the ‘No More Page 3’ movement. Students and activists across the country gathered in a protest on November 16 to “celebrate women” and to urge more unions to join the 25 universities who stopped selling the “anti-feminist” tabloids.

In his smash hit Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke has been accused of promoting non-consensual sex, which had student unions all over Britain ban the track from their student bars.

After University College London (UCL) became the latest university to issue a ban in early November, Thicke told BBC Newsbeat: “I don’t think people got it out here [in the UK] in those positions of power. I think the kids get it. I wrote it about my wife [Paula Patton]. She’s my good girl.”

Debate instead of censorship

Hildegard Naango Titus, president of the Debating Club at UAL and third-year photojournalism student at LCC, doubts whether banning can tackle the underlying problem, which is often sexism.

“I don’t think banning the Blurred Lines song will stop misogyny the same way banning prostitution won’t deter the sex trade. I think talking about it and exchanging ideas and creating dialogue about it will.”

 “I don’t think banning the Blurred Lines song will stop misogyny the same way banning prostitution won’t deter the sex trade. I think talking about it and exchanging ideas and creating dialogue about it will.” – Hildegard Naango Titus

Swansea University’s Student Union (SUSU) has been another union to oppose seemingly ‘sexist’ behaviour. SUSU angered students and pole dancers in October after banning their Pole Fitness Society: “Activities such as pole fitness contributes to an atmosphere where women are viewed as sexual objects and where violence against them is acceptable,” the union said in a statement, adding the exercise is “inextricably linked to the sex industry”.

A U-turn came after protests led by the president of the Pole Fitness Society, Bethan Morris. In an interview with Swansea University’s newspaper Waterfront, Morris said: “We are [happy] that the union has apologised for their mistakes and that the situation will not only be rectified for pole fitness but that new legislation will be put in place to stop it happening to any other society.”

Ellie Buchanan, committee member of UAL’s Pole Dance Fitness Society, said: “One of the concerns of the trustees was that it is women dancing and men watching. We have a couple of boys in our classes who by no means came to watch; they are interested in improving their own bodies and learning a new skill.”

Dr. Roger Sabin, tutor in BA Culture, Criticism and Curation (CCC) at CSM encourages his students to fully debate those controversial issues rather than censor them: “One of the first year courses on CCC is a ‘censorship’ unit. The culmination of the course involves students giving a three-minute analysis of a controversial image. One of the questions is always ‘Would you ban it’? Invariably, the answer is no.

He added: “I think UAL students feel they are in an art school environment and that therefore freedom of expression should be sacrosanct.”

Spying

There’s another “threat” to students’ freedom of expression – spying: some authorities have sought to monitor “extremist” tendencies on campuses and planned to spy on particularly “suspicious” political campaigners.

Police in Cambridgeshire, launched a covert operation about “student-union type stuff” against the student body at Cambridge University, which The Guardian reported on November 14.

The operation included an officer encouraging an activist in his 20s to pass on personal information in return for money. Police attempted to obtain information on students that attended demonstrations, who organised them and what cars they travelled in.

The activist filmed the meeting with the officer which put an end to the potential surveillance of hundreds of students.

A group of 130 academics and researchers at Cambridge on Monday urged the university’s vice chancellor in an open letter to “condemn such covert practices, [that] infringe the traditional boundaries of University self-governance.”

Titus of UAL’s Debating Club warned: “It’s a danger because issues that we should be challenging and talking about are swept under the rug, and are allowed to flourish and grow instead of laying out everything out in the open and saying why it is inappropriate.

“If you silence students and ideas, even if they are wrong, you can’t expect to change perceptions and ideas.”

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