Cotton-wool campus?

Saturday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Cinema 3, Barbican Therapy Culture

When University College London’s students’ union banned a Nietzsche reading group in March, on the grounds that discussions about right-wing philosophers could encourage fascism and endanger the student body, many saw it as the reductio ad absurdum of student-union bans in recent years. These have included bans on Robin Thicke’s pop hit ‘Blurred Lines’, on the grounds that it might be distressing for victims of sexual assault, as well as everything from the Sun (thanks to Page 3) to ‘offensive’ T-shirts depicting Jesus and the prophet Mohammed in cartoon form. So have British universities become bastions of politically correct censorship? Or are such restrictions - enacted by elected unions rather than the state - a welcome attempt to ensure universities are safe spaces for all students?

Student politics has long involved political boycotts, going back to campus bans on Barclays Bank in the 1980s (for operating in apartheid South Africa), Nestlé products in the 1990s (for promoting baby milk in the developing world), or Israeli goods in the Noughties (in protest at the treatment of Palestinians). But for all their limitations, these campaigns were an attempt to engage with the world of politics outside the university. In the past few years, however, there seems to have been a trend towards student politics turning inwards. Students’ unions have instead become increasingly concerned with making campuses safe from potentially hostile outsiders, by enacting ‘no platform’ policies, first for ‘fascists’ and later other offensive speakers, from Islamists to radical feminists.

For some this is a progressive move because student unions have a duty to ensure that all students feel safe on campus, that no one feels excluded from campus activities and that no offence is caused by those activities. It is argued that women, LGBT and ethnic-minority students are often especially vulnerable and must be protected from intimidation and discomfort. Others feel the unions are engaged in acts of censorship which undermine academic freedom and treat students as children rather than adults. Do ‘safe space’ policies empower or infantilise students? Are today’s students simply not as robust as previous generations and so need protecting in ways their parents’ generation did not? Or have unions simply become more sensitive to the needs of their more vulnerable students?

Watch the debate:

Listen to the debate:

Tom Bailey
journalist; contributor, World Finance, European CEO, and The New Economy.

Michael Segalov
communications officer, University of Sussex Students’ Union; freelance journalist.

Ella Whelan
assistant editor, spiked

Harriet Williamson
columnist and blogger

Joel Cohen
communications manager, BeyondMe

Produced by
Tom Bailey journalist; contributor, World Finance, European CEO, and The New Economy.
Joel Cohen communications manager, BeyondMe
Recommended readings
Female students are not damsels in distress

It's a weird feminism that encourages women to think of themselves as weak.

Ellamay Russell, spiked, 25 September 2014

Safe Space Is Not Safer

I am often asked about

Justin Adkins, Huffington Post, 20 August 2014

Thus spake the student union censors: UCL BANS Nietzsche society they know nothing about

UCL Nietzsche Club banned because of celebrated German philosopher’s links to the far right

The Tab, 3 June 2014

The whole damn literary canon needs a trigger warning

Until we appreciate how much of our literature is potentially traumatic, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence?

Sarah Ditum, New Statesman, 7 May 2014

Trigger Happy

The trigger warning has spread from blogs to college classes. Can it be stopped?

Jenny Jarvie, New Republic, 3 March 2014

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