Representatives from the University of York’s leading campus newspapers gathered last night to discuss freedom of speech on campus, both in York and around the country.
Richard Crawshaw, Chairman of the York Student Think Tank, led the debate with panellists Alex Lusty and Gabriel Bramley, Editors of The Lemon Press; Jonny Long and Thomas Butler-Roberts, Editors of York Vision; and Felix Forbes and Jack Richardson, respective Politics and Muse Editors of Nouse.
The downgrading of the University of York’s free speech rating, measured by Spiked Online (stylised as ‘Sp!ked‘), from ‘Green’ to ‘Amber’ prompted the York Student Think Tank to the assemble the campus newspapers for a discussion. According to Sp!ked, a university of an ‘Amber’ grading has recently “chilled free speech through intervention.” Sp!ked‘s website states:
The University of York and the University of York Students’ Unions collectively create an environment that chills free speech. The university, which has maintained its Amber ranking, restricts ‘offensive’ behaviour and jokes. It also cancelled an International Men’s Day event in 2015 after protests. The students’ union, which has moved to an Amber ranking, restricts innuendo and, in 2014, banned its rugby team over offensive tweets. The institution’s overall ranking moves to Amber.
Alex Lusty, Editor for The Lemon Press, was not convinced that his university deserves an ‘Amber’ rating, saying that Sp!ked‘s criteria for gradings was misleading. His colleague Gabriel Bramley added that Sp!ked is a politically-motivated outlet exhibiting slight biases in its assessments of universities and student unions and their policies toward freedom of speech. He said that, first and foremost, the University of York is an academic institution and, like other places of work and research, policies against sexual discrimination are hardly uncommon nor unjustified.
The University of York joins its neighbour York St. John as well as the universities of Cambridge, Exeter, Imperial, St. Andrews, Keele and Aberdeen as an ‘Amber’-graded university. Only twelve universities, including Canterbury, Southampton, Worcester, Bolton and Winchester bear a ‘Green’ grading; the universities of Bath, Bradford, Oxford, Reading, Warwick and Royal Holloway, among others, are understood to be ‘Red’-graded universities for their active efforts to restrain freedom of speech. (A full list can be found here.)
The panel agreed that Sp!ke had misreported some of the events that have occurred at the university, leading to its lesser grading. However, Nouse Politics Editor Felix Forbes said that the hockey team had voiced sexist, racist and other unfavourable things and was deserving of the union’s censorship.
The panel was asked about the purpose of the press on campus. Alex Lusty said that a satirical paper, such as his Lemon Press, was there to satirise and make fun of goings-on at the campus. Thomas Butler-Roberts, of York Vision, said that newspapers were there to inform but also to entertain the reader. Lusty added afterward that it is difficult to categorise university papers into single functions – the Lemon Press does make readers laugh but, he added, it also makes its readers think too.
The campus newspapers publish their material according to a code of conduct established in a press charter, written by the student union. Felix Forbes clarified that the charter associates articles with their individual authors and prevent articles from being removed unless under exceptional circumstances.
This press charter has recently been updated. Jonny Long, Editor of York Vision, said that the charter now enables the student union to censor embarrassing stories about the union staff. The gathered newspapers were not officially aware of the new, slightly more restrictive charter; according to York Vision‘s representatives, news that the charter had been revised came through a group chat on Facebook with the YUSU Media Representative.
Asked about the threats to free speech and journalism, Alex Lusty said that union “incompetence” and libel cases are often a greater threat to the free press than to union or state interference. The Lemon Press will not publish jokes that concern especially sensitive topics such as mental health – Lusty believes that certain impingements on press liberties work in the interest of the readers. Regarding the censorship of ‘extreme’ views, Jack Richardson, of Nouse, said that the best way for extreme or outrageous views to be defeated is to publicly discuss them rather than censor them.
Richard Crawshaw asked the panel how they felt about other publications, including The Yorker, that operate outside the union. Jonny Long argued that the national university press outlet The Tab, which operates in forty universities across the nation, is often a hive of poor journalism and it is lucky that the majority of student journalists in York contribute to established local student publications such as Nouse, York Vision, The Lemon Press and The Yorker.
Felix Forbes said that in his ideal world, all press outlets would operate like The Yorker, free of censorship from a union or a university regulatory body. Alex Lusty concurred, voicing his support for a plurality of papers and outlets, incorporating student journalism from multiple areas and perspectives. However, Long said that belonging to the union is not without its benefits, as the union will step in to defend campus publications in the event of legal disputes.
Is free speech on campus declining in the UK? Alex Lusty recognised small encroachment on the liberties of students, but he said that this is likely part of a trend that may well reverse or repeat over the next few years. Attention was drawn to a Nouse article written by Sam Lees that shows the contrast between British and Turkish censorship.
The 2008 press charter released by YUSU can be read here. As an independent student newspaper outlet, The Yorker is unaffected by the student union’s regulations on press and does not adhere to its press charter.
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