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Jessica Cripps questions whether or not Bristol really deserves its red rating for censorship.

Censorship has been a hot topic on the university scene now for a number of years, and is fast becoming a taboo-topic that everyone has an opinion on, but no one really seems to understand.

Spiked recently published the 2017 Free Speech University Rankings, in which 115 UK universities were given a ‘red’, ‘amber’, or ‘green’ ranking depending on how tight free speech regulations were in the SU and University. Red restrictions included actively banning and censoring ‘ideas’ on campus; Amber demonstrated an intervention policy, while Green showed no restrictions.

Bristol University was one of 73 institutions to be given a red overall ranking: the SU was flagged as red, while the university administration were given amber.

Censorship – or the suppression of obscene, politically unacceptable, or threatening ideology – is not okay, it is true.

And why are we branded scarlet? Because how dare we have a safe space policy, provide consent classes to first years, challenge rape culture, or ban a chav-themed social that caused student outrage.

Censorship – or the suppression of obscene, politically unacceptable, or threatening ideology – is not okay, it is true. As a country that enshrines free speech, we must accept that that includes allowing the expression of ideas that we might find offensive – even if that is just to open up debate about why they are offensive.

 

Bristol does do some direct censoring: songs that have lyrics which promote rape culture are not allowed to be performed in the SU, unless parodied or instrumental. We also have the ability to No-Platform speakers, and the selling of the controversial French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is banned. Perhaps these measures do deserve to be flagged up under a red light rating.

However, the problem with not censoring arises when the free expression of ideas is publically isolating or demonising to an individual for a plethora of reasons, such as belief, disability, sexual orientation or gender, for example.

The University of Bristol has a duty of care to all students, and that includes providing an environment where students do not feel harassed, targeted or ostracised. If views are being expressed that have the potential to offend, the university, arguably, has a duty to prevent that from happening.

 

This does not mean preventing ideas from being expressed. It simply means encouraging an environment where practices of kindness and tolerance are commonplace.

In these circumstances, what we might consider as ‘censorship’ often rejects an expression of an unethical or downright disrespectful point of view.

But is it a bit far to call educating students on sexual consent a censorship issue?

Just as a white person dressing up as a black person will (rightly) cause offence, it is reasonable to accept that a bunch of middle class, privileged, private school-educated students parading around in ‘chav’ clothing will offend those from working class backgrounds. It ignores the complex social issues around the stereotype. It is demeaning. And frankly, as a leading university, we are capable of more imaginative and exciting society social themes. Has anyone had a condiment social yet? Didn’t think so.

But is it a bit far to call educating students on sexual consent a censorship issue? This isn’t an issue of telling people they cannot talk about rape, but of educating them on what constitutes rape. This is an action taken to help protect both male and female students against sexual assault.

 

In a society that has invented date rape nail varnish and lockable underwear as ‘preventatives’ of sexual assault, isn’t it time that we celebrated the fact that we are taking actions to teach that it is not okay to rape, rather than just ‘don’t get raped’?

The censorship debate is not over. In all likelihood, this article will probably be ripped to shreds by censorship tyrants who believe there is no justification for preventing free speech. And they’d be right – there isn’t. But does taking actions to promote a safe, protective environment for students constitute censorship? If it does, then perhaps we should be taking our ‘red’ censorship rating as a big thumbs up that we are doing everything right.

Does taking actions to promote a safe environment for students constitute censorship?

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Does taking actions to promote a safe environment for students constitute censorship?

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