The Free Speech Problem

Is AUSA enforcing censorship?


Alex Mason | Sat, 17 Nov 2018


One hallmark of modern society is a broad commitment to the freedom of speech. Robust and balanced societies protect the ability to believe, speak, and associate freely. And while the defence of free speech is best maintained through political means, its cultivation and advancement are naturally suited to education. In this way, universities have a uniquely important role in the promotion of free speech.

Although most people would extol the principles of free speech, not everyone likes to be challenged. Free speech is most endangered by those who believe their own power is threatened by critique or confrontation. In other words, censorship is borne out of insecurity in one's own philosophical position. Nowadays, this alarming phenomenon can be witnessed at universities around the country. Although universities were intended to be places where free speech could be nurtured and practised, they are quickly becoming places where it is most imperilled.

Even the government agrees that censorship on university campuses is a growing problem.

Earlier this year, the Joint Committee on Human Rights released a report regarding the state of free speech in higher education. They found that students with minority views experience unjust restriction and censorship at various UK universities. Wielding enormous power on campus, certain students’ associations have come to embody the politics and tactics of repression and control. Some associations place undue burdens on those with minority views while others take the more severe tactic of simply banning certain viewpoints.

One of the most heavily-censored viewpoints is that of the pro-life ethic, specifically as it relates to opposing abortion. The various efforts by students’ associations to prohibit, restrict or even de-ratify pro-life societies have been well-documented at universities around the UK including Strathclyde, Cardiff, Dundee, Oxford, Glasgow, Newcastle, Stirling, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Warwick, Cambridge, and Manchester. But this kind of censorship isn’t limited to other campuses. It’s happening here at Aberdeen, too.

Back in April, a group of students submitted a society application to AUSA. Our proposed group, the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society (ALES), intends to facilitate peaceful and civil debate around issues in life ethics. While its members identify as pro-life, the society would organise open-to-the-public lectures and debates throughout the year. In October, however, AUSA rejected our society application. Apparently, our society would violate a policy passed by the Student Council in November 2017. This policy established AUSA as institutionally pro-choice and, furthermore, requires no-platforming any society that contravenes that position. Since ALES would be constituted as, among other things, anti-abortion, we have been banned from affiliating.

This is a prime example of censorship.

AUSA is just the latest in a long list of students' associations which selectively repress the freedom of speech of certain students and societies. AUSA's willingness to censor dissenting speech, even though such speech is protected by UK and EU laws, should be chilling to any fair-minded student who believes that the free exchange of ideas is essential to a university’s ethos.

Moreover, this decision exhibits AUSA's hypocritical enforcement of tolerance. Although our students' association prides itself on being radically tolerant, its willingness to block the formation of a minority-view society illuminates the lopsided nature of how tolerance is actually practised on our campus. AUSA should protect the ability of minority-view students to form a society and affiliate with the union, but this fiasco proves that AUSA does not equally represent all students. AUSA operates as a democracy, but once the majority uses its power to strip rights away from the minority, democracy has devolved into mob rule.

Students are ill-served by an association which stifles dissenting opinion and debate over society's most contentious issues. 

How can a university community truly live up to its own ideal when the freedom of speech is actively suppressed? If these topics are freely and civilly debated outside the walls of the University, why should AUSA deem them to be off-limits on campus? For a students' association which touts its supposed liberality, this outcome is an illiberal travesty.

The pro-life position is admittedly an unpopular minority opinion on this campus, but it is fully protected by law. The right to speak freely must be equally applied to all, not just to those who already agree with the majority opinion.

Will Aberdeen continue to be a university where certain dissenting views are censored and no-platformed? Or can sincere debate occur?

Those in honest pursuit of knowledge should not fear disagreement. Understanding is often sharpened and refined in the crucible of debate.

The future of free speech at Aberdeen hangs in the balance. As pro-lifers, all we ask for is fair treatment and the opportunity to be heard without threat of reprisal or no-platforming. We want to enter the conversation on equal footing, but in order to do that, AUSA’s discriminatory no-platform policy must be rescinded. 

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