Tiffany Jenkins: Students must learn song of freedom

Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, seen here at the MTV Awards with Miley Cyrus, was banned by EUSA. Picture: Getty
Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, seen here at the MTV Awards with Miley Cyrus, was banned by EUSA. Picture: Getty
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Objections to the University of Edinburgh monitoring student statements are justified – but perhaps hypocritical, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Time spent at university as a lecturer or a student should be spent discussing and debating ideas. Whether they concern literature, chemistry, or politics, no idea or concept should be protected from questioning and probing. This should include discussions about how the university is run as well as the difficulties that staff and students face. Having these arguments helps to highlight serious problems and resolve them, it helps in getting to the root of issues and in addressing them.

There is no better way to address differences of opinion than to have it out. The alternative is to gag people, to shut them up, to close down debate, to stop people from speaking their minds, restricting the very words they can read and hear.

The University of Edinburgh is one of the best universities in the world. It has nurtured critical thinkers for centuries, and yet they have been seeking to manage and control the airing of student views in a manner that is questionable. This summer, the university demanded that the leaders of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) sign a clause confirming that they would give the university 48 hours’ notice of any statement or publication that “may be detrimental to the interests of the student body or the university community”. Documents seen by The Journal, a student newspaper, reveal that an early version of the contract proposed by the university even required that officials have the power to amend statements made by the students’ association, which EUSA refused.

It’s hardly the worst case of the restriction of speech I have come across. It is understandable that universities take care to anticipate what is said about them. As someone who spends a lot of time in universities, I know that students whinge a great deal and are not always in the right. And as the university funds the body you can see why they might think they have a right to place restrictions on EUSA. But, despite these points, because the act of sending a statement to the university before anyone else is likely to have chilling effect on what is said – sending it to officials prior to a release will inevitably influence what is said and what is not said – the clause should not have been signed and it is wrong of the university to seek to monitor the student body in this way.

EUSA has to be able to act in the interests of students which will not always in the interests of the university. Students have to be able to act independently and autonomously. This means that the university has no place in obtaining the formal right to check critical statements, and it is concerning that they think that doing so is okay.

Sadly, however, it’s not that hard to see where they got the idea that asking for the right to check the statements (and suggest they amend them) is okay, because not a month goes by without some new restriction on our speech. Some are clearly very serious, others less so, and some address language that you might not like at all, or would not agree with.But all are united by the notion that others have the right to decide what we can say or hear, adding up to a progressing curtailment of speech.

The impending regulation of the press is one such case. Although we do not yet know the final details of the Royal Charter agreed by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour, which will be put forward for approval at a specially-convened Privy Council at the end of this month, there will be a regulatory system for the industry in place at some point, even if some papers and magazines will opt out and protest it. In Scotland, certain sectarian and political songs are now out on and off the pitch and men have already been sentenced for such singing. Anyone who travels on the Scotrail Edinburgh-Glasgow service will have seen the poster threatening: “Use sectarian language on the train and who knows where you’ll end up.” The sign depicts a ­railway map with tracks leading to the locations of Scottish prisons, and spells out: “You could get a five-year prison sentence and a criminal record.”

Banter is also off limits, even when no-one is offended. Last week the England manager Roy Hodgson had to apologise after making a joke about a space monkey and the Tottenham Hotspur player. It was something he said to the team during half time, in a semi-private space – hardly broadcasting to the nation – and no-one complained. Even so, after someone leaked it, he had to say sorry.

And these are only a few current examples. There is a long list that continues to grow detailing what we cannot say and what can cannot hear, but perhaps the most pertinent example of a recent restriction of free speech was brought in by EUSA, the student body that now protest their need for free speech.

In September, EUSA banned a song from being played in any of the University of Edinburgh’s student buildings. The song was one of the summer’s biggest hits – Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines – which had reached No1, but it has controversial lyrics that EUSA argued trivialises rape and promotes an unhealthy attitude towards sex. Whilst debate about these lyrics and their impact would be healthy, acting as censors in relation to what students listen to on campus is not. I expect that had the university tried to ban a popular song the student body would have rightly protested.

The problem is if you approve the restriction of speech in one case, it is difficult to protest it in another. What many fail to realise is that when certain words or groups are restricted in their speech, it endorses the further restriction of others – that means for you and for me. Staff and students in elite universities, people on the train and men watching and playing football should be free to say and think what they like. We may not like what they say but we should defend their right to say it.

One lesson these students could do with learning is that in defending the right of others to say and hear words for themselves we defend our own right to speak out and to listen for ourselves.