Campus Wars: safe or sanitised?

Sunday 18 October, 17.30 until 18.45, Frobisher Auditorium 1, Barbican Feminism and Its Discontents

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California, Berkeley, through which academics and students successfully overturned the censorious policies of university management. Against the backdrop of McCarthyism, the FSM ushered in a new era of student activism across the US and Europe, with free speech at its heart. So it is striking that today, student radicals appear to be at the forefront of calling for restrictions on what they and their fellow students are allowed to say, read and hear.

In February, the online magazine spiked launched the UK’s first Free Speech University Rankings. It found that 80 per cent of universities censored speech, and that the vast majority of this was carried out by students’ unions. No Platform policies, which originally banned fascist speakers, are now used to ‘protect’ students from a wide range of controversial ideas, and not only right-wing ones; even feminist speakers have been disinvited because some students objected to their views. At the other end of the spectrum laddish comedian Dapper Laughs was banned from Cardiff University after campaigners claimed he promoted ‘rape culture’. And last October, a high-profile debate on abortion was cancelled at Christ Church, Oxford, after protesters claimed the discussion would harm the emotional wellbeing of female students and make them feel ‘unsafe’.

One former student union president has argued that while inviting speakers is not in itself an endorsement, it could be seen as ‘legitimating their views as something that’s up for discussion’. Should some issues be seen as beyond discussion, if discussing them is likely to upset students? Toni Pearce, the current president of the National Union of Students, has declared: ‘I’m really proud that our movement takes safe spaces seriously.’ But should safety on campus really extend to protection from emotional as well as physical harm? Or should students be expected to cope with controversial ideas. Should campuses be bastions of open debate, where anything goes, or does creating ‘safe spaces’ actually allow many vulnerable students more opportunity to speak their minds? Is this trend exclusive to campus life, or are student leaders responding to a wider censorious culture? And what is the future of student politics, now that spirit of the Free Speech Movement seems a distant memory?

Watch the debate

Ian Dunt
editor,; political editor, Erotic Review

Christina Hoff Sommers
writer and resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; host, weekly video series, The Factual Feminist

Gia Milinovich
producer, broadcaster, professional dork

Tom Slater
deputy editor, spiked; coordinator, Down With Campus Censorship!

Ella Whelan
assistant editor, spiked

Produced by
Tom Slater deputy editor, spiked; coordinator, Down With Campus Censorship!
Ella Whelan assistant editor, spiked
Recommended readings
Feminist backlash against the censors shows tide turning in free speech debate

We are seeing the first signs that the tide is turning in the free speech debate. Event organisers are finally coming under as much pressure from free speech defenders as they are censors.

Ian Dunt,, 30 September 2015

Time for a real free-speech fightback

Cameron’s anti-extremism strategy could have been ghostwritten by the NUS.

Tom Slater, spiked, 18 September 2015

The Coddling of the American Mind

In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, Atlantic, September 2015

“No platform” was once reserved for violent fascists. Now it's being used to silence debate

The no platform of now doesn’t target groups such as the National Front or the EDL – instead, it’s aimed at individuals who certainly do not trail the organised muscle of a thug army behind them.

Sarah Ditum, New Statesman, 18 March 2014

Free Speech University Rankings

The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) is the UK’s first university rankings for free speech. We’ve surveyed all British universities, examining the policies and actions of universities and students' unions, and ranked them using our traffic-light system.


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